AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE TABERNACLE
In His goodness God has given to us the interpretation of the meaning of the tabernacle, and it is recorded for us in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Having spoken in chapter 8 of the New Covenant which replaces the Old Covenant of the Law, the writer goes on to show in Hebrews 9 that just as the first covenant had a sanctuary and service, so does the New Covenant. The tabernacle was a worldly sanctuary, verse 1, not in the carnal sense of worldly, but in the sense that it was:
1. Constructed of materials from this world.
2. A structure fitted for travelling through this world.
3. An ordered and beautiful structure. Just as the cosmos or universe has order and structure, so this worldly (kosmikos) building is the same.
We should notice the words used of the tabernacle which give clues as to its meaning:
The example of heavenly things Hebrews 8:5 “The example…of heavenly things”. Hebrews 9:23 “The patterns of things in the heavens”. Example and pattern translate the same word. The priests served in an earthly sanctuary, but they did so in relation to the sanctuary in heaven. The earthly tabernacle was a sample of what was in heaven, but the heavenly things were the reality behind them, “the heavenly things themselves”, Hebrews 9:23.
The evidence of heavenly things Hebrews 8:5 “The shadow of heavenly things”. The heavenly things were the substance, something that can cast a shadow, whereas the tabernacle was the shadow. It provided evidence that there was a heavenly reality.
The expression of heavenly things Hebrews 8:5 “The pattern showed to thee in the mount”. The heavenly sanctuary was the pattern, (tupos), see 9:24 below. “Tupos” is a metal-worker’s word, coming from the word to strike, and means the original, archetypal pattern, which when impressed onto softer metal leaves its corresponding mark, the anti-type. Hebrews 9:24 “The holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true”. The word figure, (anti-tupos) is the reverse of the word used in Hebrews 8:5. The heavenly sanctuary is the type, whereas the tabernacle on earth is the anti-type.
The explanation of heavenly things Hebrews 9:8 “The Holy Spirit this signifying”. The tabernacle set-up was a sign that the Holy Spirit used in Old Testament times to point the way to spiritual truths. Hebrews 9:9 “Which was figure for the time then present”. Just as the Lord Jesus in His parables used objects to represent truths, and just as He performed miracles that were called signs, so it is with the figure, (parabole) and sign of the tabernacle. The Holy Spirit used the tabernacle and its arrangement to convey spiritual truth in Old Testament times.
It is interesting to note that the materials for the making of the tabernacle are called a heave offering in Exodus 25:2, for they represented a recognition of the God of heaven, the words heave and heaven being connected. The Lord Jesus said to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how will ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” John 3:12. There were things beyond the earthly kingdom of Messiah that Nicodemus knew nothing about. Moreover, he was not yet in a condition to receive those heavenly truths. The woman of Samaria was different, however, for she had repented and believed, and the Lord was able to unfold somewhat of heavenly things to her, John 4:21-24. She learnt that true worship was in spirit and truth, and not confined to any earthly location. That it was as Father God’s people would worship Him, and they would do so in Spirit, and they would not need material things to help them. This was a dramatic change, for God had ordained both tabernacle and temple should be built, yet now Christ is saying that there is an hour coming when such things will be obsolete.
Solomon even hinted at this at the consecration of his temple, for he admitted, speaking of God, that “the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee, how much less this house that I have builded.” And Stephen alluded to those words in his defence before the Sanhedrin, who had accused him of speaking blasphemous words against the temple, Acts 6:13. He said, “the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands”, Acts 7:48. He supported his statement with a quotation from Isaiah 66:1, “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool: what house will ye build Me? Saith the Lord”.
They were too enraged to listen, however, but there was a young man there who did take note, even Saul. Whilst he kicked against the pricks for a while, refusing to respond to the conviction of the Spirit, he relented at last, writing to the Philippians, “we are the circumcision which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh”, Philippians 3:3. The words “worship God in the Spirit” are an echo of the words of the Lord Himself in John 4.
At the present time, then, earthly temples are unnecessary. Indeed, those who build them show they have not grasped the nature of the present age, which emphasises spiritual concepts, and not physical “aids to worship”. Unbelieving men may be impressed with sacred architecture, with its soaring heights, supposedly pointing men to God, but the Christian is not deceived. The beautiful singing, the gorgeous robes and vestments, the fragrant incense, the stained-glass windows, the altars and fonts, all appeal to the natural senses, and all tell eloquently that men are in the dark as to true Christianity, and to cover their ignorance they adopt a mixture of Judaism and paganism in a futile attempt to worship God.
The Lord Jesus said, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John”, Matthew 11:13. Now these were the two divisions of the Old Testament, and both are said to prophesy. So the books of Moses had relevance to the future, not just in those passages such as Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33, but “all…the law” had something of that aspect. This is why the Lord Jesus was able, in resurrection, to expound from “all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself”, and also to say that “These are the words which I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning Me, Luke 24:27,44.
Now how do we know that “the things concerning Himself” extend to the tabernacle system? Three Scriptures help us to decide. First, in Hebrews 10:20 we are expressly told that the veil is Christ’s flesh. So the writer to the Hebrews is teaching us to see significance in a curtain hanging in the tabernacle of old; and moreover, to see it as a symbol of Christ’s flesh. We shall enquire later as to what that means, but it suffices for now to note the principle.
Second, we turn to John’s Gospel. A reading of that gospel will tell us that, as he writes, John is linking with the Old Testament by his references to Old Testament feasts and practices, and showing that Christ is the fulfilment of them. His whole gospel is structured around three celebrations of the Feast of Passover, and we find the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem, the centre of the religious life of Israel, more than in any other gospel. (In fact, despite the fact that Jerusalem is the city of the great king, and Matthew presents Christ as rightful king, he does not speak of Him as being in Jerusalem until He goes there to die). It is no surprise to find that early on his gospel, after his eighteen-verse prologue, John tells of John the Baptist, son of a priest and therefore a Levite, announcing the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God, John 1:29. No surprise, either, to find Him purging the temple of the oxen and sheep and doves that had been brought for sacrifice. He is reinforcing what John the Baptist implied in his announcement, and presenting Himself as the true sacrifice. He is in fact saying, in the language of Psalm 40:6,7, “Burnt offering and sin offering thou hast not required. Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me, to do Thy will O God”. Words applied to the Lord Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-9.
Third, having seen that both a curtain in the tabernacle, and animal sacrifices offered outside at the altar, “prophesied” of Christ, we are prepared for John’s statement, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”, John 1:14. Having been active behind the scenes in Old Testament times, He now manifests Himself. But notice the interesting word John uses for “dwelt”. It means, literally rendered, “pitched His tent”. But this is exactly what God did in Israel, for He said to Moses, “Let them make Me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them”, Exodus 25:8. And the word for dwell used there is “shaken”, meaning “to tabernacle”. Not only does the Lord express His desire to dwell amongst Israel as He gives directions for the building of the tabernacle, but He repeats this in connection with the continual burnt offering to be offered on the altar, Exodus 29:42-46. It is in the atmosphere of the sweet savour of the burnt offering that God is pleased to dwell amongst His people.
How significant, then, that it should be John’s gospel that should present the Lord Jesus as the fulfillment of the tabernacle system, for his gospel is “the gospel of the burnt offering”, being full of reminders of what the Burnt Offering meant to God. The burnt offering was the “ascending offering”, and not only is the ascension of the Lord Jesus mentioned three times in John’s gospel, (3:13; 6:62; 20:17), but the whole emphasis in the gospel is of One who is in communion with heaven, and desires to be back there. In fact, John does not record the actual ascension of Christ, as if, for Him, it was a foregone conclusion. What he does do is record the Lord’s word to Peter about His coming again, the implication being that He would ascend to His Father. It was in the character as the true burnt offering that the Lord Jesus dwelt amongst men, and the sweet savour of His person gave His Father the utmost satisfaction.
Before we go any further, we need to notice the exact words that are used of the heavenly sanctuary in the Epistle to the Hebrews. We read in Hebrews 8:2 that it is “the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man”. Also, in 9:11, that it is “a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building”. Let us consider these statements. First, the true tabernacle. Now the word for “true” used here is that one which means “in every respect corresponding to the name”. It is not a question of true as opposed to false, but true and substantial as opposed to that which does not fully measure up to the thing described as true. The bread that fed the Israelites in the wilderness was real bread in that it sustained their bodies, but the true bread is the fulness of that reality the manna only hinted at, John 6:32. The Lord gave a long discourse explaining that meaning, and thus showed that the manna was real, but it was also a symbol of the higher reality that is only found in the Son of God.
Second, we will consider the words “not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building”. Notice that we are expected to draw conclusions from the fact that it is not made with hands, for “not made with hands” is as much as to say, “not of this building”; the one is implied in the other. The word for building has the sense of “what is made or created”. It is used in Hebrews 3:4, where we read, “He who built all things is God”. Now creation is made up of three components, time, space and matter. We see this in the very first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning”, (time-word, telling us that this is when time began), God created the heaven and the earth, (matter plus space between the two). So when we are told that the true tabernacle in heaven is not of this creation, we learn that it is not limited by time, and therefore is eternal; is not limited by space, and therefore is infinite; is not limited by the physical constraints of the material, and therefore is spiritual in character. We learn also about this tabernacle that the Lord pitched it, and not man.
Why are we assured it is not pitched by man. Is this not obvious if it is in heaven? The point is that the tabernacle on earth was pitched by man, and this tabernacle is in direct contrast. Because the tabernacle in the wilderness was made by man, it was tainted, and had to be sprinkled with blood before it could be operative, Hebrews 9:21. So we can be confident that this heavenly tabernacle, not having anything of man about it, is totally pure at the outset.
What of the word “pitched”? It is a word which emphasises the pegging down of a tent. This sanctuary is fixed, then, as opposed to the tabernacle in the wilderness which was moved many times until the land was reached. Whatever this tabernacle is shall never be developed into something else; it is permanent. Does the past tense in the verb “pitched” imply that it happened at some point in past time? That cannot be, for we have seen that the true tabernacle is not part of this creation governed by time. It is eternally pitched, then. There is no point when it was not there. We are told about Christ as the Lamb that He was “foreordained before the foundation of the world”, 1 Peter 1:20. Does this mean that at some point in eternity He was ordained the lamb, whereas before He was not? Surely not, for this foreordination is part of God’s eternal purpose, and therefore has ever been.
But we still have not decided what this sanctuary actually is. To help us find out, we can summarize what we have learnt about it:
1. It is built by God.
2. It is in heaven.
3. It is the true tabernacle; not in the sense that the tabernacle on earth was false, but it did not come up to the fulness of the original, and therefore was lacking in some respects.
4. It is not of this creation, and therefore is not limited by time, space, or physical constraints.
5. It is pitched, in the sense that it is immoveable and permanent.
6. It can be described as “heaven itself”, as opposed to heaven in sign-form, as the tabernacle on earth was.
Consider these Scriptures: First, 1 Timothy 6:16, which describes Christ as “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto”. In other words, in the light of God’s presence. This is the environment in which He dwells. Now no created light could be meant here, so it must mean the light of His own glory. And with this 1 John 1:5 agrees, which says that God is “in the light”. Second, in Colossians 3:3 the apostle reminds the Colossian believers that they have died, and yet “their life is hid with Christ in God”. So to have one’s life hid with Christ, means to have a life which is hid in God, for Christ is, in some way, in God. To be with God is to be in God. Paul is virtually saying that heaven and God are indistinguishable. That His person excludes any other consideration. Such is the glory and immensity of God, there is not room for anything else there, so it may be summed up as “God”.
Third, in Ephesians 2:1,2 we learn that as sinners we walked in trespasses and sins; our conversation was in the lusts of the flesh. Yet now, as believers, we are “seated in heavenly places in Christ”, verse 6. Now to be in sins, or to behave as those in the lusts of the flesh, or to be in Christ, are not physical locations, they are moral positions. So also is being in heavenly places. It is to be placed in an environment which is entirely heavenly in character, and has nothing of earth or sin about it whatsoever.
Fourth, perhaps the most telling statements are those of Hebrews 10:20, where we are bidden to enter into this heavenly sphere, and we are said to do so “through the veil”. Does this mean that as we enter the presence of God we have to draw aside a curtain in order to get in? Surely not, for the veil is explained as being “His flesh”. Now of course we are not to take this literally, but metaphorically. The flesh of the Lord Jesus refers not to His body, as such, but His life in the body. The writer carefully distinguishes the two in the passage, referring to Christ’s body in verse 10, but His flesh in verse 20. It is through what He was, said, and did in His body when here in the flesh that we may enter the presence of God. And the major thing He did was to yield Himself up to death, at which point His life in the flesh came to an end, and spirit, soul and body were separated.
Significantly, at that precise moment the veil in the earthly temple was rent, telling us that the focus was now on the heavenly sanctuary. So it is that, when we come through the veil, it is not a physical passage through a curtain, but a spiritual journey into God’s presence in view of what Christ was to Him on earth. It is this that gives us entrance. To this He alluded when He said to His own in the upper room, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me”, John 14:6. These words may be applied in the gospel, but they really refer to the believer coming to the Father. The Lord is coming for His own to escort them to the Father’s house, but in the meantime they may have access to the Father through Him. What He has shown Himself to be as He manifested the Father down here, is the means of access to God. We “come to the Father” as we advance in the knowledge of Himself, which knowledge is found in Christ, for as He goes on to say, “If ye had known Me, ye should have known My Father also”.
This is why He also says, “I am the truth”, for having pointed out Himself as the means of accessing the Father, He then presents Himself as the personification of truth, for all that we need to know about the Father is found in Him. Further still, He is the Life, the one who energizes this progress to the Father, (and since eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ), the one who makes the knowledge of God a reality.
Hopefully we are now in a position to notice the significance of John’s words when he wrote, “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth”, John 1:14. The word for dwell means to tabernacle, or encamp. This is what God did in the wilderness, for He said, “let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”, Exodus 25:8. The tabernacling of Christ marks a new beginning, for Herod’s temple was still standing, and the Lord even called it His Father’s house, John 2:16. Something new is beginning, and it is not earthly at all, but heavenly. But we might think that the Word tabernacling simply meant that He was here on earth in a body. For did not Peter refer to his death as putting off his tabernacle, 2 Peter 1:14? And does not Paul refer to our body as the earthly house of this tabernacle, 2 Corinthians 5:1? Whilst it is true that Christ was on earth in a real body, this is not all that is being said here. For John tells us it is the Word that was made flesh.
Even though the Word is the Son of God, (as this very verse tells us), the emphasis is not on a person becoming flesh, but on the Word doing so. Now both an individual word, and a plurality of words in a statement, are the expression of a mind. We know what a person is thinking if he expresses it in words. And the whole statement, whether long or short, is a word. We see this illustrated in John 5:24 where the Lord Jesus speaks of those who hear His word. He is not referring there to a single word, but to the whole theme or topic of His Deity upon which He had been discoursing. So when John writes about the word being made flesh he is saying to us that the mind of God is being expressed in a person who has come into flesh and blood conditions. Since John has already told us the Word was God, then the expression such an one gives to what is in the mind of God must be perfect.
Several things happened on the Day of Atonement, and one of them was that atonement was made for the tabernacle of the congregation, “that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness”, Leviticus 16:16. The word “remaineth” being the same word as rendered “dwell” in Exodus 25:8. So the tabernacle dwelt in the midst of Israel’s encampment. We easily see the counterpart that John is introducing us to, even the Word tabernacling among Israel. Now as we shall see there was a difference between the tabernacle proper, and the tabernacle or tent of the congregation, these referring to different curtains, and the second word is use in the passage in Leviticus just referred to. Nonetheless the principle remains, that the Word was found in the midst of Israel, in the same way as the tabernacle of old was found in the centre of the camp. So there are three tabernacles in Scripture, in this context. There is the tabernacle in the wilderness, there is the Word tabernacling amongst Israel, and there is the true tabernacle in heaven. We have seen that the latter is a spiritual concept, not being of this created order of things in any way. The tabernacle of Old Testament times was an anti-type of that heavenly sanctuary. But how shall we interpret it, so that we may know more about God through it? The answer is plain; it is through the second tabernacle, the Word made flesh. By learning of Him, as symbolically illustrated in the Old Testament building, and also noting what He said in His ministry as He unfolded the mind of God, we discern the glory of God. For John goes on to speak of glory.
In the tabernacle of old, the glory of God was separate from the building. Now, the glory of God is seen in a person, and that person the Son of God. John writes, “and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only begotten of the Father, John 1:14. Because to be the Son of God means to be equal with God, John 10:30,33,37, then the Son is fully able to unfold the mind of God. He is in eternal relationship with God the Father as His Son, sharing His nature in every particular, and is therefore uniquely qualified. So when John and his fellow-apostles saw the glory of the Son, they saw the glory of God.
We should remember that the tabernacle in the wilderness, whilst meaningful and real, did not present the fulness of that which is found in the True Tabernacle in heaven. This is not the case with Christ, however, as we see from the following:
(a) In the wilderness, God and the tabernacle were separate, and He dwelt in it. The Word, (who is God, John 1:1) dwells amongst men as the realisation of tabernacle symbolism, and is Himself the tabernacle.
(b) The glory of God was separate from the tabernacle, but the glory of Christ is manifest in His Person, and His glory is the glory of God, 2 Corinthians 4:6.
(c) Moses was not able to see the glory, but John could say, “we beheld His glory”. Having seen that the tabernacle on earth was a copy of things pertaining in heaven, we are in a position to consider the way different parts of the whole tabernacle system relate to this. Consider the following general suggestions as to their significance: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” and “the veil , which is to say His flesh”, encourage us to see in the tabernacle and the veil symbols of the Word as He told out the mind of God.
Taking the foregoing into account, we may summarise the significance of the tabernacle as follows:
The tabernacle, tent, covering for the tent, and the covering overall: Features of the character of Christ as seen in varying measure according to the degree of a person’s interest in Him.
The boards for the tabernacle: the support the God-hood and manhood of Christ gave to the display of His character. His steadfastness in the face of the opposition in the world.
The court of the tabernacle: the righteous life of Christ, showing the standard of righteousness God requires of those who approach Him, but which is unattainable by the natural man.
The gate of the court: righteousness maintained, but the blue, purple and scarlet are added, representing those things which fit Christ to be the mediator, the way to God.
The altar of burnt offering and the laver: two aspects of the work of Christ at Calvary, His sacrificial work and His sanctifying work, Ephesians 5:1,2; Titus 2:14.
The unseen vessels in the Holy Place and Holy of Holies: the different ministries of Christ which He currently exercises in the presence of God, but of which He gave glimpses when He was here on earth. These ministries may be summed up in the words of Hebrews 9:24, “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us”.
The transportation of the vessels through the wilderness: the ways in which Christ moved amongst men so that they could have opportunities to uncover His glory, and also give opportunity for His people to serve Him by shouldering responsibility.