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What was the Purpose of the OT Tabernacle?

A lot of people struggle to make sense of the first ten verses of Hebrews 9. But there is much for us to learn here. Continue reading . . .

A lot of people struggle to make sense of the first ten verses of Hebrews 9. But there is much for us to learn here. Read the text closely.

1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and man earthly place of holiness. 2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation (Heb. 9.1-10).

The Tabernacle was, for lack of a better way of putting it, a portable temple with a movable courtyard. The courtyard itself was approximately 150 feet long and 75 feet wide. I provided the people at Bridgeway a measure of perspective by comparing the size of the tabernacle with the size of our auditorium. Our auditorium is approximately 120 feet long and 90 feet wide. So, the courtyard was only 30 feet longer and 15 feet narrower than where the people to whom I minister sit each week.

The fence surrounding the courtyard was about 7½ feet high. After you entered the courtyard the first object you would encounter was the bronze altar or the altar of burnt offering (Exod. 27:1-8; 38:1-7). It was a hollow wooden box about 7½ feet long and 4½ feet high and was overlaid with bronze. A few steps farther in would bring you to a stand on which was a bronze basin filled with water where ceremonial washings would occur (Exod. 30:17-21; 38:8).

Beyond the bronze basin was the actual tabernacle itself. It was 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. It was made of wood but was overlaid with gold. The entire structure was covered by four layers of cloth and skin (Exod. 26:1-14).

Inside this tabernacle was what our author refers to in Hebrews 9:2 as “the first section” or “the Holy Place.” The Holy Place was 30 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. In it were three items.

First, there was a golden lampstand which provided light for the activities that took place within (Exod. 25:31-40; 37:17-24). Remember that there were no windows in the tabernacle. The lampstand had 3 branches spring up from either side of the main stem. The 6 branches and the main stem supported a flower shaped lamp holder (thus there were 7 stems total). Designated priests would enter both morning and evening to trim the lampstand so that its lights might be kept burning day and night. Most believe that the seven branches and lamps symbolized the fullness of light that is in Jesus Christ who is himself the light of the world.

Second, there was a table on which was placed what is called “the bread of the Presence” (Exod. 25:23-30). The table was also overlaid with gold and was about 3 feet long, 18 inches across and 27 inches high. The bread consisted of 12 loaves that were placed fresh on the table every Sabbath (Lev. 24:5-8). At the end of each week the old bread would be eaten by the priests because it was considered holy. Could this bread have been symbolic of Christ as “the bread of life”? Possibly. There were also a number of accessories on the table such as gold plates to hold the bread, gold dishes for frankincense, gold vessels for wine, and a number of spoons and bowls, all of which were made of gold.

The third item in the Holy Place was the golden altar of incense (Exod. 30:1-10; 37:25-29). Some translations make it sound as if this altar was actually behind the curtain and in the Most Holy Place, but the ESV rightly describes the Most Holy Place as “having” the golden altar of incense. Thus the likelihood is that he is speaking theologically and not spatially. In other words, the altar of incense was closely associated with the sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement that took place inside the veil of the Most Holy Place.

It was into this Holy Place that any of the priests of the tribe of Levi might enter and perform these duties. You may recall from Luke 1 that a priest named Zacharias was actually serving in the Holy Place at the altar of incense when an angel appeared to him and announced that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and give birth. Their child, of course, was John the Baptist.

The Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies was an even smaller compartment, a perfect cube, 15x15x15 feet. Again, the platform on which I’m standing is exactly 15 feet across. It was separated from the Holy Place by a thick curtain or veil made of embroidered line with blue, purple, and scarlet coloring. Sewn into it with golden threads were pictures of the cherubim. It was supported by pillars of acacia wood overlaid with gold. This is the veil that was torn from top to bottom when Jesus was crucified.

The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant which was itself only 45 inches long and 27 inches in both width and height. It was covered with gold and in it you would find a golden urn that contained some manna that had fallen from heaven to feed the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness. It also held Aaron’s rod and the tablets of stone on which had been inscribed the 10 Commandments.

A slab of pure gold, called the mercy seat, fit perfectly on top of the ark and hovering over it, facing each other, were golden figures of the cherubim (a special class of angelic being). They were called the “cherubim of glory” not because they were themselves glorious or beautiful but because it was between them that the “glory” of God’s presence appeared. God said of the Ark in Exodus 25:22a, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you.”

In order to transport the ark from place to place there were 4 golden rings at each corner through which two rods made of acacia wood overlaid with gold were inserted. Many believe that acacia wood was symbolic of the humanity of Jesus since it was the sort of wood that never rotted. The gold, of course, was symbolic of his deity.

Only the High Priest of Israel could enter the Holy of Holies, and he could do this only once a year on the Day of Atonement. We read of this in Hebrews 9:6-10. When you have time, go to Leviticus 16 and read about this day and the activities that occurred on it.

What I want you to see is our author’s statement in v. 9 – “According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” All that such offerings and sacrifices could do was to cleanse the person outwardly so that they could join in with the rest of God’s people in worship and prayer. These offerings and sacrifices only cleansed their bodies, removing ceremonial defilement and qualifying them for life in the community of God’s people.

But their consciences were never fully and finally and forever cleansed of the defiling power of guilt that was the result of sin.

So, what did the tabernacle and its furniture and the activities that took place within the courtyard mean? What did it symbolize? What are we supposed to learn from it all? Let me mention three things.

First, the exquisite construction of the tabernacle and the aesthetic perfection of its furnishings and the intricate design sewn into the embroidered material, together with the veil and the gold and the variety of colors throughout were all designed to serve as a visual sermon declaring the beauty of God. Everything in the tabernacle and later in the Temple pointed to the glory and grandeur and splendor of God.

But it was especially to his holiness that all this pointed. The necessity for continual washings and cleansing of everyone and everything that entered the tabernacle was a constant reminder that God’s holiness is of such a nature that only the perfect and pure are acceptable to him.

Second, the tabernacle and everything in it was a daily reminder not just of God’s holiness but of man’s sinfulness. Everything there shouted out loud: Stay away! Do not draw near! If you come near to God, you die! That is why access to God’s presence was restricted to only one man, the High Priest, on one day of the year, and only then if he brought to the altar a sacrifice of blood both for himself and the people.

Third, and certainly most important of all, the tabernacle and everything in it pointed to the coming of the person and work of Jesus Christ. May I remind you that when John the apostle described the incarnation of the Son of God, the entrance into human flesh and into the life of this world of the Second Person of the Trinity, he said in John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And the word translated “dwelt” is more literally, “tabernacled”! The mercy and grace and forgiveness and glory and beauty that the tabernacle embodied has now come to us fully and finally in the person of Jesus!

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