Today we return to our study of Old Testament themes fulfilled in the new covenant, our focus this month being the tabernacle and its furniture. Hebrews 9 tells us that just about every detail of this portable sanctuary and the priesthood is fulfilled in Christ, so we trust that our study will be rich indeed.
Exodus 26 records the plans God revealed to Moses for the architecture of the tabernacle, which was a portable tent wherein the Lord made Himself manifest in a special way in Israel. Just as the Israelites lived in booths or tents during their time in the wilderness (Lev. 23:42–43), God “lived” in a tent as He traveled with them. According to Exodus 26, the tabernacle complex was made in the shape of a rectangle with a flat roof, and it had three sections: an exterior courtyard surrounded by curtains of goat hair and ram skins stretched over a wooden frame (vv. 7–25), and the tabernacle proper made of beautifully woven curtains (vv. 1–6) and separated into two rooms — the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (vv. 31–33). Only the Levites could enter the courtyard (Num. 1:53), so most Israelites never saw the tabernacle proper.
There is much that could be said about the tabernacle’s design, but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it was designed to be a copy of the Almighty’s heavenly throne room. The ark of the covenant sat within the Most Holy Place as the Lord’s footstool (Ex. 26:34), and the cherubim woven into the curtains of the tabernacle were depictions of the heavenly host that glorify God day and night in heaven (v. 1). Importantly, the inclusion of the cherubim shows us that the prohibition against idols and graven images (20:4–6) is not an absolute prohibition against all art in worship. If all art were banned in the worship setting, the Lord certainly would not have ordered Israel to include figures of the cherubim in the old covenant sanctuary.
Clearly, the stress on curtains and coverings in the tabernacle’s architecture was to be a sign that there is separation between our holy God and sinners. Entering His presence is no small matter, and His worship must be carefully guarded lest His name be profaned. John Calvin comments that “the Israelites were instructed by external figures how precious a thing is the worship of God, and therefore that they must diligently beware lest it should be polluted.”
The restricted access to God’s presence in Israel was to remind the people that even though He had chosen them, something more had to be done to overcome the wide chasm between His holiness and humanity’s impurity. This chasm was bridged in Christ, who now gives free access to the Father for all who take up their cross and follow Him (John 6:37). Because of the work of Jesus, we experience an intimacy with God that Israel never did.