Part 3: The Ark of the Covenant

This is the third part in the series of teachings on the tabernacle in which we endeavour to show how the temple and the priesthood were symbolic of spiritual truths that were yet to be revealed with the coming of the Messiah. The rites of worship under the old covenant were shrouded in mystery, veiled behind the curtains of the Holy Place in the tabernacle where only the priests could enter to perform their duties on behalf of the people of Israel. The mystery of redemption that was implicit in those ancient rites of worship given to Moses has now been revealed through the new covenant put into effect by the blood of Jesus Christ.

The apostle Peter wrote; “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:10).

The Ark of the Covenant

The Lord said to Moses, “Have them make a chest of acacia wood–two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. Make an atonement cover of pure gold– two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites (Exodus 25:10-22).

“…Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiselled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. The Lord wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the Lord gave them to me. Then I came back down the mountain and put the tablets in the ark I had made, as the Lord commanded me, and they are there now” (Deuteronomy 10:1-5).

When an artist is commissioned to create a work of art it is usually kept covered until the unveiling ceremony when it is put on public display. The covenant which the Lord made at Mount Sinai was intended to prepare the hearts of the people for the unveiling of the Messiah through whom the full glory of the Lord would be revealed. God, whom no one has seen or can see, and who lives in unapproachable light, has revealed himself to mankind through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. The word of the Lord was entrusted to us through Moses and the Prophets to lead us to Christ:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Paul wrote that whenever the Law of Moses is read without the revelation of the Messiah a veil covers their minds. People may have a zeal for the law, but if they fail to understand that it was only a shadow of spiritual realities that are fulfilled in Christ it remains veiled in mystery. The word of God, which is the revelation of Jesus the Messiah, is only revealed to those who enter God’s holy presence through the atoning blood of Christ and by the leading of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul wrote, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

According to the law only the high priest was permitted to go beyond the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant was kept, and this he did only once a year with the blood of the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. Only in Christ is the veil taken away (2 Corinthians 3:14). The writer to the Hebrews tells us that we now 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…(Hebrews 9:19-20).

In ancient times most families had an ark, which is a treasure chest, in which they kept their valuables. It was for this reason that the stone tablets, representing the testimony of God, were placed in the ark which Moses was instructed to make. Nothing in this world is of greater value to men than the word of God. Jesus, who existed from eternity before the creation of the universe, is the Word of God personified:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 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 1:1-5; 14, cf. Hebrews 1, Micah 5:2).

When Jesus came to live among his people his body became the tabernacle of God containing the testimony of God. The acacia tree, from which the Ark of the Covenant was made, was the most common and accessible tree in the region. There was nothing exceptional about it, unlike the majestic cedars that were imported from Lebanon, or the imposing oaks that never grew in the wilderness. Just as the treasures of the temple were concealed behind the curtains of the tabernacle within an ark made from the plain acacia tree it was written of Jesus that there would be nothing in his appearance that would attract us to him. The Lord chooses the common or the foolish things in the sight of man to confound man’s wisdom. But they are overlaid with gold and the treasure of the word of God is stored within them. Like the common acacia tree, we live within a frail, mortal body, but our faith, which comes from hearing the word of Christ, is more precious than gold and is securing an eternal inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). If our lives are established upon the word of God then it is as though the common acacia wood has been overlaid with gold and made suitable to endure for eternity. The acacia wood is symbolic of Christ’s humanity, but the gold which overlaid the acacia wood is symbolic of his divinity. When we receive the living word of Christ we are clothed with the glory that belongs to Christ.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:3-4).

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:9-11).

Although the Lord chose to manifest his glory among men within the tabernacle where the ark of the covenant containing the testimony of his word was kept, he said through the prophet Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be” declares the Lord. “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:1-2 ESV).

In other words, the Lord will make his dwelling place in the hearts of men who tremble at his word. God’s presence abides where his word is cherished as our most precious treasure. Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Everything that can be seen is passing away but the word of God endures forever.

Unfortunately not all men recognize, nor appreciate, the inestimable worth of the word of God. Many people value created things more than the word of God through which he created all things. To take hold of the word of God is to take hold of the author of life itself. Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).

The very purpose of the law was to show man that he is sinful and lead him to Jesus Christ the Redeemer. It was put in place until the time came when God would speak to his people directly in the person of the Messiah. The Lord told Moses that he would send a prophet like Moses (referring to the Messiah who would make the new covenant): “I will put my words in his mouth . . . And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (Deut. 18:19). This is why Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin” (John 15:22-24).

To have a zeal for the law, but miss its intended purpose is absolutely futile: “The Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:37-40).

The testimony of Jesus exposes the true condition of our hearts. No-one can claim to know God if they refuse to come to him: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24).

As men approached the temple under the old covenant but did not enter the Most Holy Place, so many people approach God through elaborate religious observances and rituals that appear very impressive to men, but their hearts remain far from God. They cannot enter into his presence except through the atoning blood of Jesus and their hearts remain void of the word of God until it is written upon their hearts by the Holy Spirit through the revelation of Jesus Christ:

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me” (John 6:44-45).

Those who receive the word of Christ have discovered a treasure of immeasurable worth. If we take his word into the deepest place of our hearts and guard it as our most treasured possession, as was symbolized by the ark of the covenant, the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling with us and gives light and revelation to his word, as was typified by the oil in the lamps: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (Psalm 119:105).

We were created to be a community of worshippers who are being built together into a temple in which the Spirit of the Lord dwells. Just as the tablets of the law were kept in the ark within the inner sanctuary of the temple, our hearts are reserved for the Spirit of God to write his law upon them. The Gentiles, who did not know God, were permitted to enter only the outer courts of the temple, and even the Israelites could not enter the inner sanctuary where the presence of God dwelt. We must have the same reverence for the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. We may encounter pagan philosophies and false religions, but we do not allow them any place in our hearts. We must be careful not to be taken in by the hollow and deceptive philosophies of this world (Col 2:8). We must keep our minds from being polluted by the world or we will be defiling the place of God’s presence. In order to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth we are required to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:9-11).

The Lord showed Ezekiel in a vision how the temple had become defiled with all kinds of pagan symbols and idols prior to the seventy year exile into Babylon. The glory of the Lord departed from the temple even before it was destroyed by the Babylonians because the Lord’s presence will not abide alongside that of false gods and demons (1 Cor.10:21).

The Lord said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing–the utterly detestable things the house of Israel is doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” . . . He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable” (Ezekiel 8:6-13).

The Lord revealed to Ezekiel that the temple had been defiled by the shameful, secret and idolatrous thoughts that were entertained in the hearts of people who professed to worship him. The word of God “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13). Men are impressed by the appearance of religious piety but God judges the heart. 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).

King Herod spared no expense in adorning the exterior of the temple in order to make a good impression on the people, but the Most Holy Place was vacant. It is believed that the Ark of the Covenant was removed and hidden by Jeremiah before the Babylonians plundered and destroyed the temple and it was never recovered. Neither did the glory of God return when the temple was rebuilt after the exiles returned. This is because the Lord had promised through the prophet Jeremiah that he would make a new covenant with the house of Israel that would not be like the covenant he made with them at Mount Sinai. The old covenant law was written on tablets of stone and kept in the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place, but the Lord said that he would put his law in their minds and write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). The Most Holy Place remained void of the testimony of God until the Word came to us again in the person of Jesus Christ. It was revealed to Jeremiah and Daniel that Israel’s restoration and redemption from exile would only be made complete through the new covenant when the Lord writes his law upon our hearts (cf. Jer. 31, Dan. 9). This is why the Lord said that the Ark of the Covenant would no longer be remembered.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you–one from a town and two from a clan–and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding. In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,” declares the Lord, “men will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made. At that time they will call Jerusalem the Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your forefathers as an inheritance” (Jeremiah 3:14-18).

Wicked men deliberately defiled the Most Holy Place of the earthly temple. Thieves plundered the temple and took away all the furnishings, but the Ark of the Covenant was hidden from them. However, the Babylonians did not destroy the temple until the people had themselves become unfaithful to the Lord by embracing the idolatrous practices of the pagans and bringing their detestable idols into the temple. The Lord did not allow the Romans to destroy the earthly temple until it had served its purpose and the Word of God had come to make his dwelling in the hearts of those who worship in spirit and in truth.

If we hide the word of God in our hearts, even if men destroy our earthly sanctuary they will not, figuratively speaking, be able to remove the Ark of the Covenant. They may destroy the temporary dwelling place, but the word of God written upon the hearts of believers will endure forever, and where his word is treasured his presence will abide forever.

True worshippers are no longer required to go up to the temple in Jerusalem to worship, but must become the temple where God’s law is written upon our hearts and we worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus prayed for all who would believe, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We are made righteous through faith which comes by hearing the word of Christ. We do not conform to the pattern of the world any longer but we renew our minds with the living word of God which transforms our character into the image of Christ:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Aaron and his sons, who served as priests in the temple, were not allowed to approach the Lord by any other means than through the atoning blood of the sacrifice that was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. It is only the word of Christ that imparts spiritual life and it is only his blood that makes atonement for our sins. The place of God’s mercy where the atoning blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled was upon the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. This gives perfect expression to the character of God – the righteousness of God that is always combined with mercy. In the words of Fairbairn: “Here, with the ark and the mercy-seat together, we behold Him in perfect adaptation to the circumstances of men, appearing at once as the just God and the Saviour — keeping in his innermost sanctuary, nay, placing underneath His throne, as the very foundation on which it rested, the revelation of His pure and holy law, and, at the same time, providing for the transgressions of His people a covering of mercy, that they might still draw near to Him and live. It is already in principle the mystery of redemption, — the manifestation of a God essentially just, and yet the justifier of the ungodly, — of a God whose throne is the dwelling-place alike of righteousness and mercy — righteousness upholding the claims of the law, mercy stretching out the sceptre of grace to the penitent: both, even then, continually exercised, but rising at length to unspeakably their grandest display on the cross of Calvary, where justice is seen rigidly exacting of the Lamb of God the penalty due to transgression, and mercy providing, at an infinite cost, a way for the guilty to peace and blessing.” 1

The high priest who performed the rituals for the Day of Atonement would never dare to sit down in the innermost sanctuary before the presence of God, but when Jesus entered the heavenly temple to offer his own blood on our behalf he sat down at the right hand of the Father, indicating that his sacrifice of atonement forever put an end to the animal sacrifices required by the law of Moses. Jesus’ work is finished – for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14 ESV) – and so he sat down at the right hand of God having put the new covenant into effect by the shedding of His precious blood:

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10:15-18).

Those who treasure the word of God are able to bring forth, from that treasure within them, deep insights and spiritual truths into the mystery of Christ that were concealed within the law and the prophets. Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” “Yes,” they replied. He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:51-52). When we discover that Moses and the Prophets spoke only concerning Jesus Christ we have discovered the greatest treasure of all and will be willing to forsake everything which is passing away so that we may take hold of him. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

As a devoutly religious Jew, zealous for the traditions of his forefathers, the apostle Paul was being trained in the law under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, but when Christ revealed himself to Paul, he said, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).

The apostle John was given a vision of God’s temple in heaven, “and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. …Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; (extracts from Revelation 11:19 – 12:11).

The Ark of the Covenant which John saw in heaven represented the word of God that was with God from the beginning. He then went on to describe how the word became flesh – that is the woman gave birth to a child. In other words, the body of Jesus Christ became the temple containing the ark of the new covenant. He came to show us the way back into the presence of God and to build a new temple out of living stones which can never be destroyed, in which his word is written upon our hearts by the Spirit of God. As the apostle Paul taught, this is the Israel of God constituted through the new covenant in which the testimony of the salvation and mercy of God our Saviour, symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, is secured for eternity.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:2-4).

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Col. 3:16 ESV).



1. The typology of Scripture pg. 334