The Ark of the Covenant
It seems that every year a new children’s story Bible comes out. The captivating artwork often makes the biblical stories come alive. There is one picture in a particular story Bi ble our family has that my two-and-a-half-year-old, Elijah, loves more than others. It is a picture of a flame coming down on the altar the prophet Elijah built for God. There was a time when my son refused to go to bed until he saw this picture. Every night he would say: “Fire! Fire! Show me the fire.”
While the Israelites did not have children’s story Bibles filled with artwork, such as we have today, they were given pictures of the gospel in the old covenant types and ordinances. Among them were the Passover, the exodus, the sacrificial system, the festivals, the priesthood, and the ceremonies of the tabernacle and temple worship. There is one picture, however, to which I love to return often — the picture of the ark of the covenant.
The ark was the most significant object in old covenant worship. It was a box — overlaid with gold — and located in the Holy of Holies. “A golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” were placed within the ark (Heb. 9:4). The mercy seat covered the box. Images of two cherubim facing one another overshadowed the mercy seat. When God came down, His glory rested above the mercy seat — between the cherubim. What did this elaborate picture portray? The ark was a picture of the person and saving work of Christ.
The manna in the golden bowl foreshadowed the life-sustaining food that God gives His people in Christ. When Israel was in the wilderness, the Lord sustained them with a mysterious bread. Not knowing what it was, they called it “manna” (literally, “What is it?”). When Jesus fed the five thousand, He said: “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven… . The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:32–33). The flesh and blood of Christ is life-sustaining food for the believer.
The significance of Aaron’s rod is found in Numbers 16–17. Certain jealous men had called Aaron’s priesthood into question. God commanded that the rebels take their rods and lay them next to Aaron’s. The Lord then caused Aaron’s rod to bud as a sign that He had indeed chosen Aaron as His priest. The rod was placed in the ark to demonstrate God’s sovereign choice of the priestly mediator between man and God, the ultimate fulfillment of thi s rol e being achieved in Jesus Christ (Heb. 5:4).
The Ten Commandments were also placed in the ark. This showed that the moral law of God would forever stand before the presence of God. Jesus kept the law perfectly to the benefit of all His people, the only one to stand blameless before the presence of God.
The mercy seat was set on top of the ark. When the high priest went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat. This foreshadowed the atoning blood of Jesus. Israel’s sin had formed a barrier between God and the people. Our sins have also separated us from God. God must look at man through the lens of His law on account of His holiness. How then can unrighteous man stand before the presence of the righteous God? The dilemma is resolved through the blood of Jesus. His blood stands between the wrath of God and the believer. When the Lord saw the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat, He withheld His wrath against sin in anticipation of the full outpouring of it at the cross. The blood of Jesus alone satisfied God’s demands, and through it, the transgressions of God’s people have been forgiven. Now the Lord sees believers not through the lens of the law but through the lens of the gospel.
The symbolism of the ark reached its grand climax on the Day of Atonement. When the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the mercy seat, the glory of God appeared between the two angels on the lid. This was a picture of the heavenly glory of God. There angels stand before His throne and praise Him day and night. This symbolism also looked forward to the restored presence of God through the resurrection of Christ. When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb seeking the body of Jesus, she found two angels — one at the head, and the other at the feet — where the body of Jesus had been. The presence of God has been restored to the believer in the resurrection of Christ.
God has given us the most intricate pictures of the gospel in His Word. We are called to study them diligently. We must approach these pictures with a childlike sense of wonder.