Part 4: The Bread of the Presence

Some people may wonder what value there is in studying the symbolism contained within the rituals of the old covenant when the reality which they foreshadowed has been revealed through Jesus Christ, but we can still discover precious insights into the mystery of Christ that will greatly encourage us in our faith by exploring the meaning behind those symbols. Jesus said, “…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” (Matt. 13:52). It is unfortunate that some Christians think that because the old covenant is obsolete the Scriptures which are often referred to as, “the Old Testament” have no further relevance for us today. However, the apostle Peter wrote, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).
What was the purpose behind the elaborate furnishings and rituals of the old covenant?

These were given to illustrate spiritual truths. We worship the only true God who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see (1 Timothy 6:15-16). God is light. Light is invisible unless it is reflected off some object and objects themselves cannot be seen unless they reflect light. God introduced us to spiritual truths of the unseen spiritual realm with the visible, tangible symbols and worship rituals of the earthly temple. We can now understand the meaning behind the rituals and symbols of the temple in the light of Christ, but if we reject him of whom those symbols witnessed, we remain blind to the spiritual reality, clinging to the mere outward form (cf. Hebrews 9:1-28).

The Bread of the Presence

The LORD said to Moses: “Make a table of acacia wood–two cubits long, a cubit wide and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold and make a gold molding around it. . . . Put the Bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times” (Exodus 25:23-30).

Take fine flour and bake twelve loaves of bread, using two-tenths of an ephah for each loaf. Set them in two rows, six in each row, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. Along each row put some pure incense as a memorial portion to represent the bread and to be an offering made to the LORD by fire. This bread is to be set out before the LORD regularly, Sabbath after Sabbath, on behalf of the Israelites, as a lasting covenant. It belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in a holy place, because it is a most holy part of their regular share of the offerings made to the LORD by fire (Leviticus 24:5-9).

What was the significance of the Bread of the Presence and how did it point to Jesus Christ? According to Edersheim, “Ancient symbolism, both Jewish and Christian, regarded ‘the Bread of the Presence’ as an emblem of the Messiah.” 1

Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). The twelve loaves of bread symbolically represented the twelve tribes of Israel before the presence of the LORD in the Holy Place. Jesus Christ, as our High Priest, represents God’s holy people before the presence of God in heaven (cf. Ps. 110:4; Heb. 6:20 – 7:28). But Jesus, as the Bread of life that came down from heaven, also represents the presence of God among his people on earth. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:32-35).

In Jesus’ prayer for his disciples we can understand how the twelve loaves, called the Bread of the Presence or the showbread, symbolically represented both the presence of God with his people and the people of Israel before their God. Though there were twelve loaves, one representing each tribe, through the covenant with God they were united as one nation under one God. The symbolism of twelve loaves representing the twelve tribes is carried over to the new covenant by the Lord himself selecting twelve apostles as the new representatives of God’s holy people. As the mediator of the new covenant, Jesus is the perfect representative of both men and God. Jesus prayed for his disciples to be brought into complete unity in him: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Barnes notes in his commentary on Leviticus 24:5 that the twelve loaves were identical in both quality and quantity to the wave-loaves of Pentecost. Perhaps this alludes to the fact that both Christ and the first believers are likened to the offering of firstfruits, once again symbolising the unity between God and his people through the covenant (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20, Jas. 1:18).

The Bread of the Presence was set before the lamp in the holy place. “Bread of Presence” in Hebrew is לחם פנים (lechem panim) which, literally translated, means “bread of faces.” The face of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. The Bread of the Presence prophetically illustrated how God would come into this world which he created and make his dwelling among his people to reveal his glory to us in the face of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus Christ, the Son, is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being … (Heb.1:3).

The priests were both the representatives of the people of Israel before their God and of God to his people. Just as they symbolically entered God’s presence and ate the consecrated bread on behalf of the people, we who partake of the word of Christ, become ministers of the new covenant to reflect his glory in the world. As the apostle John declared, “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) and as the apostle Paul taught: … And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:9,18).

The eating of the Bread of the Presence by the priests was symbolic of partaking of the Word of God in the very Presence of God. Those who have been redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ are a royal priesthood. When we gather on the Lord’s Day to pray and devote ourselves to the teaching of the word of God, we partake of his word as the priests partook of the Bread of the Presence. Paul described his ministry of teaching the word of God and proclaiming the gospel as discharging the priestly duty (Romans 15:16). If we have partaken of the bread of life through receiving the word of Christ we are then also called to be his ambassadors in the world, teaching all nations to obey everything Jesus has commanded us, with the assurance of his abiding presence to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20). This is the priestly duty of every believer.

As a royal priesthood it is our duty to consume the “Bread of the Presence.” Jesus is the Presence of God among his people and we are to feed on his word that imparts eternal life. When Jesus said “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” many of his followers were offended, but he was using figurative language to explain that only by believing in him and receiving his word do we receive eternal life: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). After he was raised from the dead, he appeared to two of his disciples as they were walking along the road to Emmaus, but they were kept from recognising him. Later, when they sat down to share a meal with him, their eyes were opened and they recognised him through the symbolic act of breaking bread: They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:30-31).

The priests ate the Bread of the Presence on each Sabbath day and replaced the loaves with freshly baked loaves. The Showbread evidently remained fresh for the whole week. This typifies the fact that the Word of God never becomes stale or outdated – on the contrary, it is the source of life itself and sustains all things: All things are sustained by the powerful word of the Messiah (Hebrews 1:3). It is as “fresh” and relevant to us today as it was to the holy men and women of past generations. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus represents the bread that does not spoil. People have to work for food to sustain their bodies – the apostle Paul warned the people of God, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 2:10) – but most people neglect the spiritual food that imparts life to their spirits.

God caused the Israelites to hunger in the desert and then fed them with manna to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Dt. 8:3). On the sixth day he provided them with a double portion so that they could rest in God’s presence on the seventh day (cf. Exodus 16:21-30). When Jesus enacted the great miracle of feeding the multitudes he was reminding them of this same principle – He is the Bread of Life who sustains his people by his very word. If we feed on his word for our spiritual sustenance he will also give us our daily bread. Jesus told the people, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:25-29).

It is an ancient tradition among Jewish people to break bread together every Sabbath day. This commemorates how God provided food for the Israelites in their sojourn in the desert. The believers in Jesus Christ continued this tradition of breaking bread together. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Edersheim noted, “… the apostolic practice of partaking of the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s-day may have been in imitation of the priests eating the shewbread every Sabbath.” 2 This practice is continued among believers in various forms to this day for by this we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the very Bread of life that came from heaven to give his life for the life of the world: For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).

The act of breaking bread together is not only symbolic of the manner in which God feeds and sustains us by his very word, it also represents the intimacy of the close fellowship that we are privileged to enjoy through the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made to reconcile us to God. In ancient times table fellowship was restricted to those who belonged to the holy people. The book of Acts makes reference to this restriction when Peter was called to preach the gospel to the household of Cornelius (Acts 11:2). In the same way participation in the Lord’s table is restricted to believers. We partake of one loaf, the bread that came down from heaven, and through the bond of his Spirit we are brought into unity and maturity in our faith: … is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Cor. 10:16).

The table and the showbread symbolically represented the privilege of close fellowship with the Lord. When David was fleeing from Saul, he and his companions ate of the consecrated bread in faith, showing that we are not justified by legalistic righteousness, but by faith in God’s love and mercy alone (cf. 1 Sam 21:4-6). Later, when David was made king, the kindness he extended to Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan, because of the covenant he had made with Jonathan, prefigured this fellowship of grace and mercy that we receive through the new covenant that Jesus made in his own blood. Mephibosheth, the sole survivor of the house of Saul, was brought before King David fearing for his life, but instead he was showered with grace and mercy: “Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.”… So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table like one of the king’s sons (cf. 2 Sam. 9:1-13). All of us were once enemies of God because of our sin, but he has cleansed us and restored us on the basis of his loving-kindness alone: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:5-6).

No Israelite was permitted to eat of the Bread of the Presence, but the people of Israel were represented by the priests who ate on their behalf. If a Levite had any sort of physical defect or deformity he was excluded from serving at the altar:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to the LORD by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy’” (Leviticus 21:16-23).

This was to illustrate God’s holiness and to show that those who are defiled by sin can never enter his presence. Those with physical deformities merely mirrored the deformity of sin that is present in every one of us. No one, apart from Jesus, our high priest, is worthy to stand in the presence of God: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Before we can enter his presence we must be cleansed through the washing of his word and clothed in the righteousness that comes through faith in him. When Jesus healed those with physical defects he was demonstrating his priestly authority to pronounce us cleansed of sin so that we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place and enjoy fellowship with him.

Among men, it is customary to accord special honour to those in high office and it would be inconceivable for a dignitary to be serving those under him, but Jesus showed us that his Kingdom is established upon the opposite principle: When the disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest Jesus rebuked them saying, “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (cf.Luke 22:24-30)

It was, and is, a great honour for common men to be invited to dine in the presence of kings and royalty. We are called to just such an honour by the one who is the King above all kings. He invites us to come into his holy presence to enjoy the privilege of “table fellowship” with him: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:19-22).


1. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services” p. 144 by Alfred Edersheim.
2. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services” p. 145 by Alfred Edersheim.