Tabernacle and Priestly Symbolism

Yes I thought I knew my Bible,
Reading piecemeal, hit or miss,
Now a part of John or Matthew,
Then a bit of Genesis

Certain chapters of Isaiah,
Certain psalms, the twenty-third.
First of Proverbs, twelfth of Romans,
Yes, I thought I knew the Word.

But I found that thorough reading,
Was a different thing to do,
And the way was unfamiliar,
When I read my Bible through.

You who like to play at Bible,
Dip and dabble here and there,
Just before you kneel all weary,
Yawning through a hurried prayer.

You who treat this crown of writings,
As you treat no other book,
Just a paragraph disjointed,
Just a crude impatient look.

Try a worthier procedure,
Try a broad and steady view;
You will kneel in awesome wonder,
When you read the Bible through.

Anonymous Author

Many of us are trying to do that this year, read the Bible through, get a good, broad, and general knowledge of God’s word, rather than just the common bits and pieces here and there.

The end of Exodus and the first 7 chapters of Leviticus is one of the most difficult portions of the Bible to read through.  Quite often when people resolve to read through the Bible they get stuck here at the end of Exodus or somewhere in Leviticus, because for most people it’s just very boring, let’s be honest, and it seems very irrelevant to us in 21st century America.  Many find it about like trying to read through several pages of the telephone directory.  It’s all these details about the design of the tabernacle, the worship center God wanted the Israelites to build, and its furniture and the clothing for the priests and their ordination ceremony and how to offer the different kinds of sacrifices, where you kill the animal and what you do with the blood and the innards and the hide and various parts.  It’s all very bizarre to most people and seems irrelevant to them.  What could all that possibly have to do with you and I?


Tabernacle in the WildernessWell, I’ve found it easier than it used to be to read through this portion of Scripture, because I’m seeing much more significance in these many details than I used to.  The New Testament (NT), especially the letter of Hebrews, teaches us that much of this stuff was symbolic and foreshadowing.

To begin, let’s look at a few verses from Hebrews.  Hebrews 8:1-2, “…  we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man”.  Notice that there is a true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man, and at least part of this true tabernacle is in heaven where Jesus our high priest is now.  Speaking of the Levitical priests, 8:5 says, “they serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things”.  A shadow is something that doesn’t have any substance to it, but it takes the shape of the thing that cast it.  And a shadow cannot actually accomplish what the actual person or actual thing can accomplish, but it takes on the shape.  10:1, “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things.”.

I want to try to give you a taste of the symbolism, try to match up some of the shadow with the good things to come; the very form of things that cast the shadow.  There’s so much more to the symbolism and the significance of all the details of these things than I could bring out in one lesson and I’m sure more than I realize.  But I’m going to talk in very general terms and about some of the general symbolism that I see.

When God proposed a covenant relationship to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, where they were to have no other gods besides Him, follow His Law, and be His people that He takes care of and protects, you could think of it like a marriage proposal.  God asked Israel to be His wife.  And Israel said, “Yes”.  And God gave to Moses the laws he would expect Israel to live by, and Moses wrote them down on a scroll.  And then Moses read all of God’s laws to the people and the people promised, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do”.  And back in that day the way they would seal a covenant was with blood and some kind of exchanging of blood.  So they slaughtered young bulls and drained the blood into basins and Moses took a hyssop branch wrapped in wool and used it to sling half of the blood on the altar as God’s half, and then the other half of the blood on the people.  And as he did it, he said, “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words”.  And once that blood was applied their covenant with God was sealed.  It was as if the wedding ceremony was complete at that moment.  And what follows a wedding is you move in together and set up house and furniture and decorations.  And that’s exactly what God gave Moses instructions for next.  He and the people now had this covenant relationship and He was going to, in a sense, live with them.  So He gave instructions about how to construct and decorate His tent and it’s furniture, that He might dwell among them.  But the people of Israel surely, you would think, would have known that their God is too “big”, too great, too holy to really be contained in that little tent.  With the many mighty acts of God they had witnessed, surely they knew He ruled heaven and earth and couldn’t be contained in a tent.  But this tent was to be a visible symbol and reminder that God was among them and that they were “married”, so to speak, with God, they have a covenant with Him.  And God selected certain servants to serve at His tent, priests.  He selected Moses’ brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons.  Aaron would be the high priest and his sons the common priests.  And in the generations to come the priests would be the descendants of Aaron and his sons.  These priests were to serve as God’s representatives to the people, and they would take from the people their gifts and sacrifices for God and offer them on their behalf.  And God assigned tasks for these priests in His tent and in the yard just outside His tent that were very symbolic and instructive for His people, instructive about sin and the cost of sin and God’s holiness.  And God wanted these priests dressed in a very particular way as He wanted His tabernacle furnished and decorated a very particular way.

Let’s talk first about some of the symbolism and foreshadowing in…

The Priests and Their Attire

Understand that these pictures probably aren’t exactly accurate but they give the general idea.  And save me having to explain in detail how things looked.

The High Priest

High Priest AttireThe high priest was dressed something like this.  He was dressed like this because He was not Jesus, but he was a foreshadowing of Jesus.  He was a flawed human being, who lacked the qualifications to really be the high priest that people need.  But God had him dressed in this way to symbolize what we really need in a high priest, what Jesus is actually.

The clothes closest to his body were fine linen and pure white, a symbol of purity and righteousness.  Then he would have a robe over that of heavenly blue, perhaps symbolizing that we need not just a righteous priest but a heavenly priest.  Then over that he would have on an apron like thing called an ephod.  It was beautifully embroidered with blue and scarlet and purple, the same colors as the veil inside the tabernacle.  And then he would have on a girdle, a belt like thing, to hold his clothes to his body so that he could work and serve efficiently without his clothing getting in his way.  He would be a working servant, as Jesus is.  On the shoulder straps of the ephod in settings of gold were onyx stones, one on each shoulder.  And on the onyx stones were engraved the names of the 12 tribes of Israel.  So the high priest bore the names of God’s people.  It symbolized that He represents God’s people to Him; they are His burden, His responsibility, as Christ has made us His burden.  And then over the ephod he wore a breast piece on which were mounted 12 different precious gems, each having a name of a tribe of Israel engraved in it.  And in Exodus 28 it says this was so that he was carrying the names of God’s people over his heart, as Jesus has us on His heart.  Incredibly, we are His concern.  The breast piece may have been like a big pouch, a big front pocket, because in it were placed these mysterious things that I wish we had more information about, called the Urim and Thummim.  What these things were exactly I don’t know.  We’re not told.  But the high priest would use these things, whatever they were, to inquire of God, to get judgments from God, answers from God about important questions.  Later in the OT there are occasions where people came to a high priest to inquire of God.  And he would use the Urim and Thummim to get God’s answer.  They were, maybe, different colored stones that the high priest would pull out, one color meaning a “No” answer, another meaning a “Yes” answer, and another meaning “No answer”.  Maybe.  We have no description of them.  But this is why the breast piece was called, “the breastpiece of judgment” or “the breastpiece of decision”, because it had the Urim and Thummim in it.  And of course Jesus is a high priest who gives to us God’s judgments that we need to know.  And then on the forehead of the high priest, over his turban, was a gold plate on which were engraved the words “Holy to the Lord”, meaning this one is set apart to the Lord, this one is special to the Lord.  He’s a shadow of Jesus.

The Common Priests

Garments of the PriestsThe common priests and their attire were also a shadow of some people today.  But not what people often think of when they hear the term “priests”.  People often think of someone who has taken a vow of celibacy and maybe a vow of poverty and wears black clothing with a white collar and maybe has authority to forgive sins.  But you don’t find any of that stuff associated with priests in the Bible.  Not in the OT or in the NT.  Listen to these Scriptures.  I Peter 2:9, written to just Christians in general scattered over Asia Minor, “But you [Christians] are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD.”.  I think we’re a royal priesthood because we are the family of the king.  Being the family of the king makes us royal and we’re also priests.  Revelation 1:6, “He [Christ] has made us [Christians] to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.”.  In Revelation 5:9 there is a song of praise to Christ sung in heaven saying, “Worthy are You…  for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth”.  We, Christians, have access to God that ordinary people do not.  And our job is to be mediators, go-betweens between a holy God and people in sin.  We are to represent God to people and people to God and do what we can to help bring reconciliation between the two.  We are priests.

The attire of the ordinary priests was not nearly as involved and stunning as that of the high priests, but similar.  They wore the same kind of white fine linen garments that the high priest had on under his ephod, and they wore a cap and a girdle like the high priest.  It foreshadows the fact that Christians, real Christians, are clothed with the likeness of our high priest.  None of us are as glorious and beautiful.  But we resemble Him, we reflect Him more than the unbelievers among whom we live.  II Corinthians 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit”.  It’s kind of like looking in a mirror when we look at the glory of the Lord, but not exactly.  We’re in the process of being transformed more and more into His image.

Also, the way these priests were ordained foreshadowed how we became priests.  The ordination ceremony for the priests is described in Exodus 29.  We won’t look at all the details, but just notice that it involved taking off and laying aside whatever garments they had on.  It involved being bathed, baptized (Exodus 29:4).  And it involved putting on their new priestly garments (Ex 29:8-9).  It involved being anointed with holy oil (Ex 40:12-15).  And it involved their sins being atoned for with sacrifices and blood being applied to them.  All of that foreshadows how we became priests.  I think the Hebrew writer alludes to that in Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”.  I think he’s saying we can have total confidence that God welcomes and accepts us, that we can draw near to Him like the priests did at the tabernacle, because we’ve been consecrated and ordained as the priests.  The ordination of priests involved the sprinkling of blood and the washing of their bodies with water.  And He says we’ve had that happen to us.  The blood of Christ was sprinkled on our hearts and it cleansed us of an evil conscience because we believed in power of that blood to remove our sins, and our bodies were washed in baptism.  We also, like those priests in a sense, changed clothes.  We “laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed” toward the image of Christ (Colossians 3:9-10).  And notice Titus 3:5-6 talking about how we were saved and became priests, “He [God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration [baptism] and renewing by the Holy Spirit [that’s the changing of clothes that the Spirit of God motivates us to do; laying aside the old stubborn rebellious self and putting on the new self-intent of obeying the Lord]”.  So we “changed clothes” and were baptized, and we were anointed.  Notice what he says next, verse 6,”whom [the Holy Spirit] He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”.  Like pouring oil on the head of those priests, God poured out His Spirit upon us to be with us and help us in our role as His priests in this world.

Now, let’s move on to…


The Tabernacle

The tabernacle was a two roomed rectangular tent with one entrance that faced east in a fenced in yard that also had only one entrance on the east.  The whole yard was about the size of a quarter of a football field.  Not a very big area.

The tabernacle contained a back inner room called the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies and a front outer room called the Holy Place.  These two rooms were divided by a heavy beautiful blue, purple, and scarlet curtain.  It had cherubim, these heavenly creatures, embroidered in it.

TabernacleThe Most Holy Place, the back inner room behind the veil, was God’s room.  It was a perfect cube, 15 feet wide by 15 feet long by 15 feet high.  And into that room, only the high priest could go and only once a year, nobody else ever.  In it was one piece of furniture, called the Ark of the Covenant; a chest made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold inside and out.  In the chest were stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments and a jar of that manna stuff, that “bread of heaven”.  The lid was solid gold and at both ends were cherubim facing downward with their wings outstretched over the chest.  The lid was called the mercy seat (Hebrews 9:5), because it’s where, once a year, the high priest would sprinkle blood for his sins and then the sins of the people and there he would obtain God’s mercy for himself and the people.  That inner room was symbolic of heaven, and this ark the throne of God.  Psalm 99:1, “The LORD reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!“.  It’s interesting in Revelation 21 where it pictures the city of God, it pictures it as a cube like the Most Holy Place, an enormous cube, the walls of the city go 12,000 stadia (1500 miles) this way and 12,000 stadia that way and 12,000 stadia straight up.  The gospels tell us that at the moment Jesus breathed His last on the cross the veil that covered the most holy place in the temple was suddenly torn in two from top to bottom.  The timing was perfect, because He died at the ninth hour, 3 pm, which was called the hour of prayer (Acts 3:1).  A priest would have been standing right before that veil offering incense when it suddenly ripped in two.  I bet that priest came out of there shaking like a leaf.  It symbolized, I think, that with the death of Christ the way into God’s presence had now been opened.  Our sins that would keep us separate from Him were atoned for at that moment.  Hebrews 6:19-20 says, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, 20 where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”.  The Most Holy Place behind the veil was off limits to everyone except the high priest, but not anymore in the true tabernacle.  Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us into the Holy of Holies, meaning if we follow in His steps to the end of our days we will end up there with Him in the presence of God.

Now the outer front room, the Holy Place, only priests were ever allowed in there.  And I think we can view the Holy Place as a symbol of God’s people, as a shadow of the church.  Not church buildings, but the church as in the people of God today.  It’s something that only priests can enter today.  I Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you [Christians] are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?“.  II Corinthians 6:16, “…  we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM.”.  I Peter 2:5, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.  So we are both a priesthood and the stones that make God’s temple, or in the tabernacle imagery, we’re the boards and curtains, the walls of the Holy Place.

Inside the Holy Place were three pieces of furniture.  One was right before the veil that covered the Most Holy Place.  It was the altar of incense, made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold.  And every morning and late afternoon a priest was to offer incense on this altar, and the smoke would pass through the veil into the Most Holy Place.  The Scriptures tells us it was symbolic of prayer.  Psalm 141:2, “May my prayer be counted as incense before You“.  In Revelation chapter 5 and chapter 8, the prayers of the saints are pictured as a fragrant incense that ascends before God (Revelation 5:8; 8:3).  That’s incense we ought to offer at least every morning and every evening.

Then on the south side of the front room was a pure gold lampstand, probably about 65 pounds, with 7 branches with cups shaped like almond blossoms.  It was to be kept burning continually, even through the night (Exodus 27:20).  The priest would tend to these lamps daily.  It certainly served the practical purpose of providing light in this tent that had no windows.  But I think it also had symbolic significance for the people, maybe for one thing, suggesting that God never sleeps.  The light in His tent is always on.  Perhaps also, it was for them a symbol and reminder that God provides us with the spiritual light, the guidance that we need.  I’m not sure of all the symbolism intended with the lampstand.  And there may have been a foreshadowing of multiple things.  But I think we can see in this lampstand a shadow of another vital element of Christian life and worship, like seeing the altar of incense as a shadow of prayer.  I think we can see this lampstand as a shadow of the word of God.  Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path”.  Psalm 119:130, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple”.  Proverbs 6:23, “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is light”.  II Peter 1:19, speaking of the Scriptures it says, “…  to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”.  And it’s a lamp we should tend to daily.  As daily as we should offer up the sweet incense of prayer, we should get light from the word.

Across the room from the lampstand, on the north side, was another piece of furniture, called the Table of Showbread, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold.  On this table there was always to be 12 cakes of unleavened bread, called the Bread of the Presence.  Twelve cakes of bread, because there were 12 tribes of Israel.  God had one cake of bread for each tribe.  It was perhaps for them a symbol and a reminder of God’s continuous sustaining presence, that God has bread for all of them.  Every Sabbath, the priest would replace the cakes of bread with new ones.  And the old cakes of bread, the priests would take to a holy location and eat them together.  Well, if we’re right to see the altar of incense and the lampstand as symobolic of vital parts of Christianity, prayer and learning God’s word, perhaps we should also see a part of Christianity in the table of bread that priests would eat together once a week.  And you know what I’m thinking with that.  We share together, once a week, a special meal of unleavened bread, don’t we?

I see a picture in that holy of place of things that priests do in this age.  Acts 2:42 says of the first Christians, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching [they were going to that lamp daily and getting light from it] and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread [they were at least weekly sharing the Bread of the Presence together] and to prayer [they were continually offering up fragrant incense to God]”.

Well, in the courtyard outside of the tabernacle were two pieces of furniture.  The first thing one would see when he entered the courtyard was a large bronze altar on which the sacrifices were burnt and by which blood was poured.  Being right there in front when you walked in the courtyard was a continual reminder that human beings have no access to God unless sinless blood is shed, a sinless life taken on their behalf to cover their sin.  We should see that bronze altar as a shadow of the cross on which Jesus died.  If you’ve been reading in Leviticus you’ve seen that there were many different kinds of sacrifices offered on that altar for different purposes and different kinds of sins.  But the book of Hebrews teaches us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all those sacrifices.  Let’s look at some things in Hebrews 10.  “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.  2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins?  3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year.  4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”  Now, he’s not saying that they didn’t need to offer those sacrifices.  God required them to offer those sacrifices.  He made it a way for them to obtain forgiveness.  If they offered them with penitent hearts they obtained forgiveness when they offered them.  In Leviticus, repeatedly it says when the sacrifice is offered, he the worshiper “will be forgiven” (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7).  But though God would forgive people when they offered these sacrifices, the Hebrew writer is saying that in the mind of God, animal sacrifices do not really pay for the sins of people.  God forgave people back then when they did what He told them to do for forgiveness, because He knew what Christ would do on their behalf and ours.  Let’s keep going here in Hebrews 10, verse 5, “Therefore, when He [Christ] comes into the world, He says, [and here’s a quotation from Psalm 40. These words of the Psalm are put in the mouth of Jesus when He was on earth. This pictures Jesus on earth saying:] “SACRIFICE AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME; 6 IN WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE TAKEN NO PLEASURE.  7 “THEN I SAID, ‘BEHOLD, I HAVE COME (IN THE SCROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) TO DO YOUR WILL, O GOD.’”.  Animal sacrifices never satisfied God’s sense of justice for the sins of men.  What God wanted to pay for sin was the body of Jesus.  Jesus said, “I have come to do your will O God, to offer the sacrifice that You really want”.  Then beginning at verse 8 the Hebrew writer comments on that.  He says, “After saying above, “SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS AND WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, NOR HAVE YOU TAKEN PLEASURE in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “BEHOLD, I HAVE COME TO DO YOUR WILL”.  He takes away the first in order to establish the second.  [Jesus took away the old sacrificial system and established the second better sacrifice]”.  Verse 10, “By this will [by the will of God that the body of Jesus be offered] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”.  How much more grateful would we be for the death of Christ, if like those ancient Israelites, we had to continually be bringing our livestock to the tabernacle to atone for our sins?  To find out that Jesus’ one sacrifice takes care of all sin that we have ever done and will ever commit, must have been amazing.  And maybe you’ve noticed in your reading that the animal sacrifices, in order to be effective and obtain God’s forgiveness, required a penitent contrite heart in the worshipper.  There was no sacrifice to cover the sins of one who was willfully continuing in sin (Isaiah 1:10-17; Jerimiah 7:21-23; Psalms 51:16-19).  For example, if a man stole something from someone, in order to obtain forgiveness, he had to return what was stolen and add a fifth to it and then bring an unblemished ram to the tabernacle as a guilt offering (Leviticus 6:1-7).  The sacrifices obtained God’s forgiveness as long as the person was penitent and intent on obeying God in his life.  And the Hebrew writer says it’s the same with the sacrifice of Jesus.  It covers all our sins if we’re penitent.  Look down at Hebrews 10:26, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins“.  There is no sacrifice to cover willfully continuing in sin.  There wasn’t in the OT and there is not in the NT.  But for those who want to obey God, for those who try, God has graciously allowed us to have a substitute to take the punishment for our sins.

Then as you moved closer to the tabernacle in the courtyard there was a large bronze laver, a big basin of water.  We’re not actually given the dimensions of it.  I think it was bigger than we usually picture it.  It was in the water of that laver that the priests, in order to become priests, had to be baptized.  And every time before they entered the tabernacle they had to wash their hands and their feet here.  So before one could come into God’s presence He had to have a sacrifice to cover his sins and he had to be clean.  We should perhaps see that laver as a shadow of baptism.  But maybe not just the physical act of baptism, but also what Paul calls the renewing by the Holy Spirit.  Remember Titus 3:5 where Paul talks about how we were saved and he says it was “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit”.  We must wash our bodies in baptism, but also submit to the Spirit of God, allow the Spirit of God to change us and cleanse us inside, to bring us to repentance, to cleanse us of our stubborn rebellious heart and give us a new heart, a new spirit intent on obeying the will of the Lord.

Tabernacle Symbolism

So I see a picture of many elements of Christianity here.  I see the cross without which we could never draw near to God.  I see the cleansing of repentance and baptism without which we can’t come to God.  I see the church that we enter once we are clean and our sins are atoned for.  I see those things we should tend to daily, the word of God and prayer.  I see what we should share together at least weekly, the Lord’s Supper.  And then I see where Jesus our high priest has entered as a forerunner for us, where we will be if we follow in His steps.

-James Williams

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