The tabernacle was a religious structure built during the exodus when God’s people lived in tents. The Hebrew word mishkan, translated “tabernacle,” literally means “residence” or “dwelling place.” It is related to the word for God’s glorious presence, shekinah. Thus, the very word tabernacle connotes God’s indwelling presence among his people.
The tabernacle was a portable tent structure that could be moved when the Israelites moved. God was sending the message that he would dwell among his people. The tabernacle was beautiful, full of color and expert craftsmanship–a fitting place to worship the glorious Creator God. It consisted of three parts: the outer court, the holy place, and the Holy of Holies. Some other temples of the time, including Egyptian and Canaanite temples, were also three-part structures. But those temples had shrines to multiple deities, whereas the tabernacle was built for one God, and graven images of him were prohibited. The structure of the tabernacle helped the Israelites understand that their God was different from all other gods, a God above all others.
Other differences between the tabernacle and shrines to false deities are notable as well. In the Israelite tabernacle the priests consumed the offerings, rather than a deity consuming them. Israelite offerings were not made for the purpose of persuading a reluctant god to send rain or other favors. Instead, Yahweh promised to bless his people if they simply kept the covenant. Unlike other deities, God did not require a footstool, lamp, table, and bed. The true God does not sleep (Ps 121:4) and has no bodily needs (1 Kings 18:27). In the design of the tabernacle, God made it clear that he was unlike–and greater than–all other gods.
The tabernacle was to be located in the midst of the tribes of Israel. This symbolized God’s presence among his people and his role as warrior king. When the tabernacle was taken down, the ark of the covenant led the march. God led his people and fought for them. When the ark rested, God’s presence returned to the midst of his people (see Num 10:35-36).
CHRIST, THE TRUE TABERNACLE
Even after the tabernacle was destroyed at Shiloh (1 Sam 4:11-22; Ps 78:60; Jer 7:12-15), the image of the tabernacle remained prominent in the minds of the Israelites. That imagery was high in John’s mind when he wrote that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among his people” (John 1:14, in its literal translation). Jesus Christ was Emmanuel, God with us. The true tabernacle–God’s holy presence–had come to dwell among his people on earth. The writer of Hebrews expounds on the imagery of Jesus as the true tabernacle by comparing the structure and religious practices of the Old Testament tabernacle to Christ’s work as our High Priest.
The first part of the tent is an example for the present time. The gifts and sacrifices that were brought there could not give the worshiper a clear conscience. . . .But Christ came as a chief priest of the good things that are now here. Christ went through a better, more perfect tent that was not made by human hands and that is not part of this created world. He used his own blood, not the blood of goats and bulls, for the sacrifice. He went into the most holy place and offered this sacrifice once and for all to free us forever. (Heb 9:9, 11-12)
The tabernacle is a key image to show believers how Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice breaks down the barrier between sinful humanity and a holy God. Because Christ came to tabernacle among us, we can now enter the Holy of Holies-the throne room of God–through his blood rather than through ritual animal sacrifices and the work of a human priest.
In Revelation we read that God’s throne room builds on the images that were present in the tabernacle. We find an altar of incense (5:8), an altar of sacrifice (6:9), and the ark (11:19). Most importantly, the voice from the throne declares, “God lives with humans! God will make his home with them, and they will be his people. God Himself will be with them and be their God” (21:3). The earthly image of a God who lives among his people in tents, traveling with them and leading them, portrays the ultimate reality that God will be with his people forever.
In the plan of the tabernacle or temple, we saw several things. First, the inner sanctuary represented the presence of God. No one could enter that sanctuary without the proper sacrifice. Second, the veil that separated God from the populace was no idle symbolism, but must have said something about the ontology, the being, of things. Thirdly, no one could enter the inner sanctuary without a sacrifice of blood, a symbol not only of the wealth of a nation and its food, but also of life which the blood carried.
Hebrew 8:1-2: The main point we want to make is this: We do have this kind of chief priest. This chief priest has received the highest position, the throne of majesty in heaven. He serves as priest of the holy place and of the true tent set up by the Lord and not by any human.
I will do another article showing how Jesus Christ is symbolically in every items of the tabernacle.