The Purpose of the Wilderness Tabernacle: The Ark of the Covenant
On Mount Sinai, Moses received more than just the Ten Commandments. Also included were the detailed instructions for building a meeting place for God and His people. The Tabernacle was a temple of worship that involved specific protocols and procedures. These protocols purposely provided a possible means for God's people to dwell with Him per God's request.
Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
— Exodus 25:8
From the fall in Genesis up until the Tabernacle construction, the Bible records people occasionally walking and talking with God but not dwelling with Him. As we shall see, it is within the framework of this Old Testament sanctuary that God draws His people closer to Himself through an intricate sacrificial system. This arrangement can speak volumes to us today about the specifics of such a great salvation and indescribable gift.
. . . how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation . . . ?
— Hebrews 2:3
Every detail that Christ accomplished to restore our relationship is resident within the particulars of the wilderness tabernacle.
This teaching concerns the three spaces and furnishings of the Tabernacle, along with their order and significance concerning Christ's fulfillment in God's salvation plan.
The Three Spaces and Their Furnishings
The Old Testament Tabernacle consisted of three distinct spaces. Each space contained specific pieces of furniture that were relevant to the plan of Salvation through which we draw near to God.
- The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant,
- The Holy Place contained the Table of Bread, The Menorah, and the Altar of Incense.
- The Outer Court. contained the Altar of Sacrifice and the Copper Basin of Water
The diagram above shows these spaces.
From man's side of the journey, moving near to God began at the gate of the court with the Sacrificial altar. (See the arrow on the right in the diagram above.)
The priest, on behalf of the people, progressively moved toward the Holy Place. Next, he moved to the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God was said to dwell between the two cherubim. It was only the High Priest that was allowed to be in this most sacred space, and it was only once a year that He was allowed to do so.
The forward progression of spaces grew more protected and increased in holiness as they went.
The Order of Presentation
The order in which we will study these spaces begins in the opposite direction from which man approached the presence of God. The Exodus instructions start with the very most inner part of this structure.
J. Vernon McGee, in his "Thru the Bible" commentary, sheds some light on the reason for this.
"Notice that the first article of furniture is the Ark. We are approaching it from God's viewpoint, from the inside looking out. The Ark was in the Holy of Holies where God's presence dwelt. If we were approaching it from man's viewpoint we would come first to the gate of the Tabernacle, then the Brazen altar, then the Laver."
It is always best, to begin with, God's viewpoint, and that is how this part of the study will continue. Later, in summarization, we will take a look at how the priesthood moved through this structure, beginning at the gate.
We must understand that it all begins with God. The initiation of a relationship with God begins with Him. He is at the center and purpose of it all.
The very first temple structure of creation begins very much the same in following this pattern.
In the beginning God . . .
— Genesis 1:1
All the other furnishings of creation followed this statement.
This study will use the order given in Exodus chapter 36. Exodus 36 contains the actual construction that took place after the golden calf incident, covenant renewal, and the giving of the second set of tablets. Exodus 25-30, before the golden calf, gives a slightly different order that places the Altar of Incense and Copper Laver at the end of the furnishings list. This addition perhaps had something to do with the preparations of the priesthood and or the calf incident. We will save that consideration for another time.
The Holy of Holies and The Ark
The very first furnishing mentioned in the construction of the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark resided in the Holy of Holies, the most central part of this structure.
The Ark receives top mention over any other furnishings in all of the discussions in Scripture about the Tabernacle furniture. After preparation for the space that housed the Ark was completed, then the Ark was put in its place.
And you shall hang the veil from the clasps. Then you shall bring the ark of the Testimony in there, behind the veil. The veil shall be a divider for you between the holy place and the Most Holy (Holy of Holies)
— Exodus 26:33
Two verses surrounding the instructions for the Ark's construction reveal God's primary purpose for this particular space and Tabernacle altogether.
And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.
— Exodus 25:8-9
This portion of Scripture continues with Exodus 25:10-21 with a discussion about the Arks materials and measurements and then concludes with a very similar theme.
And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.
— Exodus 25:22
Both phrases "that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8), "And there I will meet with you" (Ex. 25:22) frame the details of the Ark echoing its purpose, and that of the entire structure, on both ends of its description.
It was in this space that the meeting between God and man took place. We shall see how the materials typified that meeting and fulfilled in Christ.
Elements of the Ark: Shittim/Acacia Wood and Gold
The Ark of the Covenant consisted of two materials that represented connecting heaven and earth. These were shittim, sometimes translated Acacia, wood, and gold.
Both shittim wood and gold symbolize incorruptibility. Typologically speaking, the wood represents the incorruptible humanity of Christ.
He whom God raised up saw no corruption.
— Acts 13:37
Gold represents the incorruptible heavenly origin of Christ.
He who comes from above is above all.
— John 3:31
Gold is also the only metal mentioned in the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation.
And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.
— Revelation 21:21
Christ was both God and man connecting once again, heaven, and earth.
God sent forth his Son (from heaven), born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons
— Galatians 4 (parantheses mine)
These two materials combined will be used in two other furnishings—the first is Altar of Incense and the second the Table of Bread. The incense altar connected "God and man" and "heaven and earth" through prayer. And the Table of bread, which was a type of communion table, served as a connecting element between God and man.
The Measurements of the Ark
This next observation I am going to share is borrowed from Ervin N. Hershberger, as is described in his book Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle, as it concerns the measurements of the Ark of the Covenant.
The measurements of the Ark are presented by the author by breaking down the whole numbers into half cubits.
. . . two and a half cubits (or five total half cubits) shall be its length, a cubit and a half (or three total half cubits) its width, and a cubit and a half (or three total half cubits) its height.
— Exodus 25:10
So the length of the Ark is five half cubits. Five is the number of God's grace. The Mercy Seat that covered this Ark was considered God's throne. The writer of Hebrews makes this same connection of God's throne with grace as it concerned what Christ has done for us in giving us access to this sacred space.
Let us, therefore, come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
— Hebrews 4:16
The width and height were three half cubits. The number three in Scripture is the number of dimensions of things that are solid real and substantial. It is also the number of resurrection and the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who fills all the dimensions of sacred space. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, explains these dimensions as it concerns God's grace as was ministered by His Holy Spirit.
To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ . . . For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man,that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
— Ephesians 3
The vertical girth totals six cubits and is the number of humankind.
“For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.
— I Corinthians 15:21
The horizontal girth totals eight cubits and is the number of a new beginning,
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new...
— Revelation 21:5
When the concepts of these numbers are combined, through the complete demonstration of God's grace in Christ, man has been resurrected and revived in spirit to a new beginning. We are now made fit dwell in the presence of God.
The Mercy Seat
You shall make a mercy seat (cover-kapporeth" כַּפֹּרֶת) of pure gold . . .
— Exodus 25:17
The mercy seat is better understood when viewed through its original translation and root word concept. The original word used in all cases of "mercy seat" is "kapporeth" (כַּפֹּרֶת). Its root "kaphar" (כָּפַר) means to cover or overspread. The only difference between the two words is the additional Hebrew letter "tav" that suffixes "kaphar" (כָּפַר) in the Hebrew word translated "mercy seat." The mercy seat, therefore, comes with the idea of covering.
This concept is interesting from a pictograph perspective, considering that "tav," the additional letter suffixes "kaphar" (כָּפַר), is represented by the symbol of a cross. The cross was understood to be the sign of a covenant long before the cross became an instrument of execution. So the mercy seat (kapporeth" כַּפֹּרֶת) was a cover (kaphar" כָּפַר) for the covenant.
This word's first two mentions also give us examples of the idea of covering. Its first appearance occurs in the account of Noah and the building of the ark. It also occurs in both a noun and a verb form.
Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch ("kaphar" כָּפַר) it within and without with pitch ("kaphar" כָּפַר).
— Genesis 6:14
The second occurrence took place when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and began to increase in number. Pharaoh sought to kill the Hebrew baby boys in Egypt. To save her son's life, Moses' mother, Jochebed, made an ark of bulrushes to save him. In Hebrew, this is the same word that is used for the ark of Noah. This ark too was "covered" in pitch like Noah's ark ("kaphar" כָּפַר) both within and without.
In Noah's case, the pitch covered the contents of the sacred space inside the vessel, preserving the lives that were in it, as was the same with the vessel in which Moses was placed. These connect us with the purpose of the ark-cover of the tabernacle structure of protecting its living contents.
We see the seed for this pattern of "covering," in the sense of guarding a sacred space that contained life, developed in the very first chapters of Genesis with the incident of the first sin committed in the garden.
. . . the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
— Genesis 3:23-24
Just as cherubim guarded the way to the tree of life after the fall, so they were also displayed as the guardians of God's lifegiving holiness in the Tabernacle.
The Cherubim were a part of the cover of the ark containing all representations of God's living Word.
Make two cherubim of gold; make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end. At its two ends, make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat. The cherubim are to have wings spread out above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and are to face one another. The faces of the cherubim should be toward the mercy seat.
— Exodus 25:18-20
In the garden scene, humans had been driven away from the presence of God. In the Tabernacle, humans are brought near.
there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel
— Exodus 25:22
Henry Soltau, mid-1800's Bible scholar, in his book The Holy Vessels and Furniture of the Tabernacle, sums up the entire revelation of the cover along with the Cherubim's purpose as it concerns the garden event and salvation through the Lord Jesus.
"This significant place of the Cherubim of itself manifested the hopelessness of any attempt on the part of man to regain life by his own efforts; and that unless the glory of God could be met, and the flaming sword of vengeance and the holiness satisfied, it were in vain for man to hope for any way of return to life; but death and curse were his final portion...They (the cherubim) no longer stand to debar man's approach to life, but they brood with outstretched wings over the place of mercy, whence life and blessings flow. No longer are they connected with the flaming sword; but their faces now intently trun towards the place of grace (the blood on the mercy seat)...mercy which desired to pardon, and truth which must condemn—meet together in Christ, for in Him the sinner recieves pardon by the very means whereby the truth and holiness of God have been vindicated...God never proves Himself more holy than when He pardons sin; for that mercy and pardon are ever grounded upon His righteous judgments having been poured out on the head of Christ, on behalf of, and as the substitute for the sinner"
The Golden Pot of Manna
There were three mentioned contents of the Ark of the Covenant. According to the writer of Hebrews 9:3-4, these three connect with life. We will examine these in the next few sections.
The first mentioned item in the ark was the golden pot of manna.
Moses said to Aaron,“Take a pot and put an omer of manna in it, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations."
— Exodus 16:33
. . . the ark of the covenant, covered with gold on all sides, in which was a gold jar containing the manna . . .
— Hebrews 9:4
The heavenly manna illustrates how life connects to faithful obedience to God's Commands, Word, and Truth.
So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.
— Deuteronomy 8:3
No man but Christ was able to fulfill this perfect obedience. Noah "walked" with God (code for obeying God's commands) but failed after leaving the ark in the drunk vineyard incident, which resembles the garden account in Genesis chapter three. Moses got right up next to the promised land and then failed just before entering it. The manna pointed to the perfectly obedient One sent from heaven who could secure for us eternal life.
Most assuredly, I say to you, in Me has everlasting life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.
— John 6:47-51
Aaron's Rod That Budded
The second noted item in the ark was Aaron's rod that budded. Aaron's rod shows a type of resurrection life. In this case, a dead rod sprouts new life in contrast to the other ones presented in a challenge concerning who had rightful authority in the priesthood. (See Numbers chapter 17) The budding rod authenticated and pointed to the only one was qualified to offer His life in death and be resurrected that we might walk in newness of life.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
— Romans 6:4
This same connection was made with Aaron's rod in a previous account when Pharaoh's magicians challenged Moses and Aaron's authority by trying to duplicate the sign.
For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.
— Exodus 7:12
Again we see only one rod that qualified above all the others. A New Testament passage gives us the application of this particular scene as it pertains to a new life in connection with resurrection.
For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality (death) may be swallowed up by life
— II Corinthians 5:4
As the manna connects with God's living Word, so was Aaron's rod was made of almond wood. Almond trees are known for their early pure white blossoms. The Hebrew word for "almond" is the same word for "watchfulness" or "wakefulness" This word is used in connection with the performance of God's Word by the prophet Jeremiah.
Then the word of the Lord came to me, asking, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
I replied, “I see a branch of an almond tree.”
The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I watch over my word to accomplish it.”
— Jeremiah 1:11-12
Testimony Tablets: Commandments
The third of three objects that were in the ark were the tablets of the covenant.
You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you.
— Exodus 25:21
The purpose of the cover was to protect the tablets of the testimony of God's covenant terms and requirements for life. John, in the book of Revelation, connects obedience to God's commands with the tree of life.
Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life . . .
— Revelation 22:14
God's purpose is to preserve life, and this cannot be accomplished apart from obedience to His commands and the one who perfectly fulfilled them.
“Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.
— Matthew 5:17-18
All three contents of the ark, the heavenly manna, Aaron's almond rod that budded, and the covenant tablets spoke of both God's Word and eternal life.
The writer of Hebrews concludes this portion of the study perfectly, as it refers to how Christ, our High Priest, was the fulfillment of this holiest and sacred furnishing and space.
Christ came as High Priest of to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance
Credits and Sources
"The Holy Vessels and Furniture of the Tabernacle" by Henry Soltau Published by Kregel Publications in 1971. Originally published in 1851 by Yapp and Hawkins, London, England.
"The Tabernacle: God's Portrait of Christ by J. Vernon McGee. Published by Van Kampen Press in Wheaton Illinois.
"The Tabernacle of Moses" by Kevin J. Connor. Published by City Christian Publishing in Portland Oregon. Copyright 1976
"The Tabernacle" by M.R. Dehaan, M.D. Published by Zondervan Publishing House. Copyright 1995
"Portraits of Christ in the Tabernacle" by Theodore H. Epp. Published by The Good News Broadcasting Association. Copyright 1976
"Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle by Ervin N. Hershberger. Published by Vision Publishers. Copyright 2007
"Spiritual Application of the Tabernacle" by Witness Lee. Published by Living Streams Ministries. Copyright 1987
"Temple Treasures" by Steven Fuson. Published by Bridge-Logos. Copyright 2010
"The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah by David Levy. Published by The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry Inc. Copyright 1993
The Tabernacle: Its Priests and Its Services by Willia Brown. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright 1996. Originally published in 1899 by Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, Edinburgh, and London.
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