The goal of the LORD Jesus' redemption was serving God on the mountain (Ex 3:12). But when the people get to the mountain, they don't go up (Ex 19:13b). Instead priests go up a certain distance (Ex 19:22) and Moses alone goes all the way to the top. But he goes on the people's behalf (Deut 5:27). In this he is like the Prophet-to-come (Deut 18:15ff).
But now that the people have arrived at the mountain, what are they to do? Camp out at the mountain? Well, no, there's a promised land to inherit. So instead, the mountain camps out with them.
The tabernacle is given to the Israelites as a kind of portable Sinai. It has the Glory cloud at its heart (pinnacle). It is stratified with places for the people, for the priests and for the high priest. And salvation is pictured as the progression (ascension) from estrangement to the most holy place through sacrifice.
The mountain and heaven are very closely identified in Scripture (Gen 2:10; Deut 4:36; Psalm 15:1; 24:3; Isaiah 14:13; 2 Pet 1:18) and so on the mountain Moses receives the heavenly blueprint for the tabernacle. It is expressly a copy of the heavenly perspective (Ex 25:9,40; 26:30; 27:8) - and so it stands at the heart of the old covenant, a picture of heavenly things, not the reality itself. The shadowy nature of it was very clearly taught in the OT itself.
This is the layout:
Let’s think about the furniture first: The NIV headings are quite helpful. You’ll see from 25:10 that the first thing Moses was to build was the ark of the covenant (orange box on left). Then (25:23) the table of the bread of the presence (orange box on right) and then (25:31) the seven-fold lampstand (to the south of the table).
Before anything else was – there was the Three. Then, 26:1 – according to the pattern on the mountain, Moses is to make the tabernacle.
If time permits we may look at the materials in another post, but after these are described we read in 26:31 that a curtain is to be made which cordons off one section of the tabernacle from another. And this curtain is inlaid with cherubim.
The last place we saw cherubim was at the end of Genesis 3, blocking humanity off from re-entering the presence of God. Here this curtain cordons off the ark of the covenant. And so 26:33; this divides the tabernacle into the Most Holy Place and the Holy Place.
Now, what do these things mean? Well perhaps we should start with the Table of the Bread of the Presence.
Jesus is known as God’s Presence among the people (see Ex 33:14; Deut 4:37; Isaiah 63:9) and He is the Bread of life (John 6). He is represented by the Table.
The seven-fold lampstand is equated with the Holy Spirit in Zechariah and Revelation. (See for e.g. Zech 4:1-6; Rev 1:4).
So we have, Christ, we have the Spirit – what about the ark – placed in the Most Holy Place?
Well Hebrews 9 (v24) tells us that the Most Holy Place represents the throne-room of heaven so we can safely assume that the ark of the covenant represents the Father - or at least His throne.
The curtain of the temple is the division that has occurred between God and humanity through the fall.
Since the problem is our estrangement from God, no wonder that the very next thing on the tabernacle-building agenda is the altar (ch27:1). Only through sacrifice is the way back to the Father opened up. (See Mark 15:38).
One final piece of furniture to note - chapter 30:1 - the altar of incense (the yellow box). This was placed before the curtain into the Most Holy Place and between the Table and the Lampstand. In the bible this represents the praying saints (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8). More on this in a future post.
So what do we have modelled here? Here is the way back up the holy hill for sinners. Naturally it's a route that takes you through fiery, piercing judgement (Gen 3:24). And it's a route that only the consecrated and anointed Priest can make - but He does so on the people's behalf, carrying them on His heart into the Presence of God Most High.
This multimedia presentation of the gospel was at the very centre of the law. It was very centre of Israelite life. The heart of the law is a gospel presentation proclaiming the way to heaven. When the law was seen as a way of us ascending into the Most Holy Place then we are dashed to pieces on it. It brings only wrath and curse. But when the OT Israelites saw the shadows as shadows cast by the great Light, they were led to the End of the law - Christ - and found mercy, righteousness and peace in Him.