Part 1: The coverings of the Tabernacle


From the beginning of recorded history God has shown man the way to be reconciled to Him and the acceptable way to worship Him (cf. Hebrews 11:4; 12:28 ; Romans 12:1 ; 1 Peter 2:5). Since Cain first tried to bring an offering of his own choosing, man has continually rebelled and tried to worship in any way that pleases him. Precise and detailed instructions for acceptable worship and sacrifices were given to Moses at Mount Sinai to illustrate that we will not be accepted by God unless we come to him in the way that he has prescribed.

In this series of articles on the tabernacle we hope to show how every detail of the earthly sanctuary was rich in symbolism pointing to the ministry of Jesus Christ. In subsequent issues we will be dealing with the Courtyard – the Altar of Burnt Offering – the Ark of the Covenant – the Table and the Consecrated Bread – the Lampstand – the Altar of Incense – the Bronze Basin – the Anointing Oil and the Priestly Garments.

The sacrifices, priesthood and temple were central to the worship of the people of Israel, yet these were only temporary, a stage in God’s plan for the redemption of the whole world pointing to the ultimate redemption through the Messiah. The Law prescribed three feasts during which every Israelite male was expected to go up to the temple in Jerusalem to worship, but when Jesus was asked by a Samaritan woman about the acceptable place of worship, he told her,

“Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).

Every aspect of the tabernacle and its furnishings, as well as the religious duties performed by the priesthood, were given as concrete illustrations of spiritual realities pointing ahead to the redeeming ministry of the coming Messiah who would reconcile us to God so that we may worship Him in spirit and in truth. It is impossible to worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” unless we come to Him through the way that he has made. Once the Messiah, to whom all the sacrifices and religious rites of the old covenant were pointing was revealed, those sacrifices and rites became obsolete and were no longer acceptable worship. There remains only one sacrifice through which we will find acceptance by God and that is the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah.

The tabernacle and its furnishings were given to teach unspiritual men about spiritual realities. The apostle Paul wrote, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Rom. 7:14). The mystery of redemption that was foreshadowed in the old covenant worship has been unveiled through Christ: Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord (Jesus Christ), the veil is taken away (2 Cor. 3:15-17). The Golden lampstand and the table of showbread that were in the holy place as well as the golden altar of incense, the gold-covered Ark of the Covenant containing the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff and the stone tablets of the Covenant that were in the Most Holy Place were kept mysteriously veiled behind the curtains and barriers. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ, these mysteries are gloriously unveiled and we are able to expound upon the old covenant worship in the light of the new covenant. As Paul wrote:

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: God appeared in a body (i.e. God became flesh and made his dwelling place among us), was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory (1 Tim. 3:16).

The writer to the Hebrew-Christians explained how the earthly sanctuary was a copy of the sanctuary which is in heaven (a familiar concept within Judaism):

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one (the Messiah, who is the high priest in the order of Melchizedek) also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Heb. 8:3-5, cf. Ex. 25:9).

The earthly tabernacle was constructed as a shadow of unseen heavenly realities – symbols representing various aspects of God to man. Paul wrote: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17). The writer to the Hebrews makes it very clear that the existence of the earthly temple, far from being the way to enter into the holy presence of God, was in fact an indication that we could NOT enter into God’s presence. The earthly tabernacle, also designated ‘the tent of meeting,’ although representing the place of God’s meeting, or dwelling with men, at the same time stood as a testimony to man’s separation from God. The barriers within the tabernacle kept us from approaching God and separated Israel from the nations, women from men, and priests from the rest of the holy nation. These barriers were a constant reminder that God is holy and that we are defiled and separated from God through our sin. Only through the perfect sacrifice of Christ has the way been opened for us to draw near to God.

“The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order. When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:8-12).

Through the sacrifice of Jesus those barriers have all been broken down. He is now building a spiritual house of true worshipers in which God lives by his Spirit. The apostle Paul wrote;

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19 -22).

The Coverings of the Tabernacle

The description of the tabernacle in chapters 25 and 26 of Exodus begins with the furnishings within the tabernacle and concludes with a description of the external barriers and curtains. This figuratively illustrates how the Lord is more concerned with the condition of the heart than with the outer appearance of the worshipers, unlike men who are easily impressed by appearances. The Lord said to Samuel:
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:6-7).

God reveals himself to the humble and contrite in heart (cf. Isaiah 57:15), in other words, to those who do not pretend to be something that they are not in order to impress men. Men try to impress others with an outward show of piety and religious fervour which often conceals an inner spiritual poverty. Of such religious pretence Jesus said,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

The temple that was standing at the time of Christ was, by all accounts, unrivalled in splendour and magnificence in both the ancient and modern world. Herod, in an effort to appease the Jews, was a generous benefactor in adorning the exterior of the second temple. Even Jesus’ own disciples could not conceal their admiration for the magnificent edifice. We know that after Moses constructed the tabernacle in the wilderness, the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Likewise, after Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem the glory of the LORD filled the temple. However, Scripture informs us that the glory of the LORD had departed at the time of the Babylonian exile and had not returned, nor was the Ark of the Covenant recovered. The inner place of the temple, the Holy of holies, was in fact vacant. All that remained was a rock upon which the blood was poured on the Day of Atonement. In contrast, the material that Moses was instructed to use for the exterior of the tabernacle in the wilderness was quite rugged, while the curtains separating the inner part of the sanctuary that was not visible to all the Israelites were made from finely crafted linen. The LORD said to Moses:

Make for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red, and over that a covering of hides of sea cows . . . Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim worked into them by a skilled craftsman (Exodus 26:1;4).

After the people of Israel had fallen into idolatry, the LORD spoke through the prophet Isaiah saying that he, the LORD, will himself be a sanctuary (temple) among his people:

The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. (Isaiah 8:13-15).

How would God be a sanctuary among his people? By taking upon himself the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man among his people (Philippians 2:6-7).

Jesus said concerning his body; “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body (John 2:19-21).

The colours of the curtains within the tabernacle symbolised this glorious truth. Blue signified divinity, scarlet signified humanity. Blue mixed with scarlet becomes purple, which in turn signifies royalty. The LORD himself became our Anointed (Messiah) King. He appeared among his people in the form of a man, while yet remaining fully divine. This is indeed a stumbling block to many. As Isaiah prophesied, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” Just as the earthly tent of meeting was very elaborately made, but with a less impressive external appearance, Jesus appeared among us in the lowly form of a servant. In him the glory of the LORD indeed returned to the temple, but not in the manner that the people had come to expect. When he tabernacled among his people, he was following the pattern of the tabernacle in the wilderness rather than that of the elaborately adorned temple in Jerusalem. Just as the glory of the presence of the LORD was behind the veil of the curtain in the temple, the glory of God’s presence among his people was hidden behind the frailty of Jesus’ humanity.

The temple was a powerful symbol of God’s protection and provision and of Israel’s calling to be a light to the nations. Jesus embodied all that the temple represented – the presence of God in the midst of his people, the testimony of God to his people, the place of sacrifice where forgiveness and reconciliation were made possible and the complete provision of God. In this way he became the sanctuary for his people. As the apostle John testified,

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

On the mountain of transfiguration, the veil of Jesus’ humanity was briefly lifted to give the three disciples a glimpse of his eternal, divine glory:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters–one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:1-9).

Through the incarnation, Jesus became the sanctuary in which the fullness of the Godhead dwelt among his people. He is the Cornerstone and Capstone of the temple. In him we too are being built into a temple in which God lives by his Spirit. The glory of God that once filled the tabernacle now resides in his Church which is the bride of Christ. That glory is seen through the lives of those that have been transformed by, and reflect the character of Christ in the world. Just as the curtains within the tabernacle were made of fine linen, the book of revelation speaks of the bride being clothed in fine linen which “stands for the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8).

In the same way that the tabernacle in the wilderness was a temporary, movable structure, we who hope in Christ are merely sojourners living in an “earthly tent” of a mortal body. Through faith in Christ we are being led to an eternal dwelling place in the presence of God, beyond the veil of mortality:

“Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-9).

Solomon made a more permanent sanctuary once the Israelites had entered the Promised Land, but it too was simply a temporary and figurative illustration of how Christ would become incarnate to be a sanctuary for his people. Solomon’s temple was destined to be destroyed on account of Israel’s sins, just as Christ was to be crucified for our sins. His mortal body was offered as a sin offering, but he was raised from the dead and glorified that he might bring many sons to glory (cf. Heb 2:10). At the very moment that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world the veil separating the most holy place from the holy place was torn from top to bottom signifying that the way in had now been revealed by God: At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51).

Under the old covenant, the worshippers were only sanctified outwardly and they were not permitted to enter God’s holy presence.

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctified them so that they were outwardly clean (Hebrews 9:13).

But those who are sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ, our high priest, are now entitled to enter God’s holy presence to worship him in spirit and in truth:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).

The sacrifices and temple worship of the old covenant was made obsolete by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the earthly temple was destroyed soon thereafter having served its purpose as foreshadowing heavenly realities. Not only was the curtain torn from top to bottom, but when it was destroyed not one stone was left on the other, signifying that God is finished with the earthly shadows. The temple of the LORD is no longer a building made of lifeless stones, but rather a spiritual house built with living-stones by Jesus the Messiah (1 Peter 2:5). The glory of the LORD has been unveiled and the glorious light of the Messiah now shines forth to give light to all the nations. As the prophet Isaiah foretold:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder (Isaiah 9:2-3).

This is the great mystery which has now been revealed to us, inspiring Paul to write; “I have become its (the church’s) servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness– the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints (the righteous). To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:25-27)

Now that the mystery has been revealed and the curtain has been torn wide open, we no longer regard Jesus from a worldly perspective. We are no longer required to go up to the earthly city and the earthly temple to worship the LORD for we worship him in spirit and in truth. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and he is our Life.