The Mosaic sanctuary

Through the sanctuary God sought to communicate His love and grace to mankind. The devotional lessons this author has discovered in God's instructions to Moses can help you understand the gospel according to the sanctuary.

E. Randall Binns, a retired college professor living in England, is author of the book Archaeology of the Mind, from which this article is excerpted. See Shop Talk for special price on book.

No subject in the Bible is of greater religious and psychological significance for us than that of the sanctuary; yet none is less known or understood by the average Christian, nor less commented on and explained at the present time by the clergy. Those who think that only the New Testament is vital for Christian doctrine have relegated both the wilderness tabernacle and Jerusalem's Temple (with all things "Jewish") to the limbo of Old Testament ideas that have little relevance. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that no biblical theme throws more light on the subjects of the God-image, on the unconscious in general, on man's whole mental and spiritual structure, and on his present functioning and final destiny than that of the sanctuary.

Some indication of the importance of the sanctuary is the space devoted to it in the Scriptures. The description of the portable tabernacle sanctuary and its services occupies an enormous portion of the Pentateuch. Later, many chapters are devoted to the erection of Solomon's Temple and the inauguration of its services, and Ezra describes the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian captivity. Some years before the return of the Jews from Babylon the prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of the great temple that was never set up as a literal building; a vision concerning whose interpretation there is still much disagreement. The Epistle to the Hebrews draws the attention of Christian readers very forcibly to the subject of the basic features of the sanctuary. And finally, the Book of Revelation refers frequently to a temple in heaven that is of vital importance to all who are alive to the unfolding of the drama of redemption in its closing stages.

God's dwelling place

For the building of the tabernacle, Moses was instructed to command the people not only to bring an offering, but to bring it willingly. This would involve a total, ready, and joyful acceptance of the will of God. They were to bring goodly portions of all the best treasures heaped upon them by the Egyptians at their departure, including gold, silver, costly materials dyed in the richest colors, animals' skins, oil, sweet spices, and precious stones; and they themselves were to make the sanctuary, "that I may dwell among them" (see Ex. 25:1-8). It was the dearest wish of all the true worshipers of Yahweh to have Him dwell among them; yet they knew only too well from the experience of Sinai that their mortal flesh and sinful, finite minds could not endure His immediate presence. This is referred to forty years later by Moses (Deut. 18:15-19) in the words "the Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; according to all that thou desiredst of the Lord thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. And the Lord said unto me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him."

Moses and the Israelites rightly understood these words to refer to a particularly outstanding Prophet; in fact, we may be sure that Moses believed that this was to be the Messiah Himself, the promised Redeemer, the very Son of God, who would veil Himself in human flesh in order to dwell among His people without endangering their lives by the presence of His unveiled divinity. It is evident therefore from this text, when it is considered in conjunction with Exodus 25:8, that the tabernacle was meant to be a symbolic representation of the nature of the Messiah, pointing forward to His actual manifestation on earth as the longed-for God-man—the Saviour. With this most commentators agree. The apostle John sums up the whole matter in the simple but most illuminating words: "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt [Gr. tabernacled] among us" (John 1:14).

Among the many writers on the sanctuary question, I especially appreciate Alfred Edersheim 1 and Frederick Whitfield. 2 They agree on most of the essential points and supplement one another to a remarkable degree. It is almost superfluous to add that their works also contain much that I cannot accept in the light of further thought and research.

The structure

The wilderness tabernacle was a simple structure thirty cubits long by ten cubits wide (approximately fifty-two feet by seventeen feet, if the Egyptian cubit of 20.6 inches was used), and ten cubits high. It was made of shittim wood, generally recognized to be the acacia—a gnarled and knotted wood of a very enduring nature. The upright boards placed side by side rested in heavy silver sockets, and were overlaid with gold. They formed the north, south, and west walls of the sanctuary. The eastern end served as the entrance, and was covered only by a veil. The ceiling was formed of a veil of "fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work [or "the work of an embroiderer," margin]" (Ex. 26:1). This veil consisted of ten curtains, twenty-eight cubits in length and four in width, coupled together in two sets of five; it was spread over the entire structure except the front, covering the western end and the two sides, but not quite to the ground. Evidently this was to keep it from being soiled by bad weather. Over the tabernacle were laid three other coverings, or "tents," thirty cubits in length, which therefore hung down lower than the linen veil. The first of these was of goat hair, the second of ram skins dyed red, and the third of badger or sealskin, which gave durable protection from the elements. At the doorway of the tent were hangings of the same materials as the inner veil, but without the cherubim (verses 36, 37). They were supported on five pillars of shittim wood overlaid with gold, and hooked together with gold; but these pillars rested in sockets of brass.

It is in connection with the description of the coupling together of the curtains of fine twined linen that covered the whole sanctuary and held it together that we come upon the arresting statement: "And it shall be one tabernacle" (verse 6). Moses and his people were thus given to understand that this tent of meeting was a single unit, not a mere agglomeration of disconnected items. This was all the more important as the first specifications detailed by the Lord to Moses referred to the articles of furniture that were to be placed within the tabernacle, beginning with the ark of the testimony. Not until the outer structure was erected could these things be bound together as a living whole.

Within the sanctuary there were two apartments: the first, called the holy place, was twenty cubits long, thus running two thirds of the total length; the second, named the Most Holy Place, or the Holiest of All, was ten cubits long, and therefore formed a perfect square. The two apartments were separated by a most exquisite veil resembling that which covered the whole sanctuary, "of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen of cunning work: with cherubims shall it be made . . . and the vail shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy" (verses 31, 33).

In the holy place, close to the curtain on the right, which was the north side, stood the table of shewbread; this table also was made of shittim wood overlaid with gold. Opposite it on the south side stood the golden candlestick, or more properly, the seven-branched lampstand, made of pure gold. In the center, just in front of the dividing veil, was the golden altar of incense, which, like the table to the right, was made of wood covered over with gold. This altar was also a perfect square, measuring a cubit each way, and two cubits in height (chap. 30:1, 2). The inner sanctuary was occupied by the greatest treasure of all, the ark of the testimony, an oblong chest of shittim wood overlaid within and without with gold, measuring two and a half cubits in length by one and a half in breadth and height. The lid of this chest formed what was called the mercy seat, made of pure gold and fitting the top of the chest exactly. From the two ends of this mercy seat extended two cherubim, beaten out of the same gold: "even of [margin, "of the matter of] the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims. . . . And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. ... And in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the-children of Israel" (chap. 25:19-22).

The psalmist tells us: "In his temple doth every one speak of his glory" (Ps. 29:9); the marginal translation reads: "Every whit of it uttereth his glory." In Psalm 77:13 it is written: "Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary." What, then, is the glory of God, and what is His way? His chief glory is the perfection of His character, of His very nature, for He is light and love and beauty and everything that the soul of man can ever long for; the unapproachable light in which He dwells is but the visible effulgence of His being. It was therefore by the shining light of the Shekinah that He made His presence known above the mercy seat; this was referred to as the "glory of the Lord" that filled the tabernacle as soon as it was set up (Ex. 40:34). Everything in the sanctuary, however, according to David, also uttered His glory, so that we are justified in agreeing with all those commentators who see in the tabernacle a spatial structure representing the nature of Christ.

So far we have dealt only with the static aspects—the outer structure and the furnishings, and we will now pause by the way to examine briefly what these represented.

Christ in the sanctuary

As God-man, Christ's nature was dual, uniting the human and the divine. The gnarled wood of the desert fitly represents that human nature that our Saviour came to share with us and without which He could not have been the perfect "captain of [our] salvation" nor a High Priest "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Heb. 2:10; 4:15). Gold, on the other hand, is the chief biblical symbol of the divine nature. In Revelation 21:18 we are told that the Holy City, New Jerusalem, is "pure gold, like unto clear glass," for there every inhabitant will have become a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Job also knew this truth, for he said: "When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10). And Malachi adds his testimony that the "messenger of the covenant. . . . shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness" (Mal. 3:1-3). By carefully noting the material of which each article was made, we can learn many a lesson of great significance. We find the wood with the gold covering used for the upright structure of the walls, as well as for the table of shewbread, the altar of incense, and the ark of the testimony. But the mercy seat with its cherubim, as well as the seven-branched lampstand, were of pure gold. Might this indicate that both in Christ's physical nature (the outer structure) and in mental and spiritual potentialities, the divine element was not only linked with the human, but had the ascendancy over it? This would not be to say that Christ had an unfair advantage over us.

"I can of mine own self do nothing," He said (John 5:30). The divine power by which He lived and spoke and worked was the same as that which He has made available to all of His followers, the power of the indwelling Father: "The Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works" (chap. 14:10).

The "testimony" that was placed within the ark was the two tables of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, "written with the finger of God" (Ex. 31:18; 32:16; 34:1). This law is the epitome of God's will, the standard of His justice and righteousness; it is thus enshrined within the inmost sanctuary of Christ's nature, being one aspect of the indwelling Father. Above it is the mercy seat of pure gold, representing that other glorious aspect of the Father's character—His forgiving love and grace that led Him to give His beloved Son to save the repentant sinner. Truly we see here that "mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Ps. 85:10). It was by Christ's perfect obedience to His Father's commandments, His complete submission even unto death, that He not only obtained mercy for His flock but also had the fullness of the indwelling light of the Father so that He Himself was revealed as "the light of the world" (John 8:12).

The table of shewbread on which were placed each Sabbath day twelve fresh loaves of bread—one for each tribe of Israel—displayed the coming Redeemer as the spiritual bread of His people; a teaching that Christ clearly affirmed in His own words: "For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. ... I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (chap. 6:33, 35).

The lampstand clearly represents Christ as the light of the world, burning brightly by means of the olive oil, which is the constant biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit. In John 8:12 we find the record of Christ's claim: "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." In the sanctuary, the high priest and his attendant priests were anointed with oil. Luke records that Christ applied to Himself the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor" (Luke 4:18); and Peter makes the symbolism even clearer in his words to Cornelius: "How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power" (Acts 10:38). The reason for the lampstand being of pure gold will emerge later.

The golden altar of incense was the place of prayer, of communion with Him who dwelt above the mercy seat. Revelation 5:8 tells us that the "golden vials full of odours" (margin, "incense") are "the prayers of saints," and David prays: "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps. 141:2). Moses was instructed to place this altar before the veil, that is, in the first apartment, in the very center of the space directly in front of the veil; but Hebrews tells us that it was the "Holiest of all" that "had the golden censer" (Heb. 9:3, 4) by which Paul means the altar of incense. There is a beautiful lesson in this apparent contradiction, for the purpose of this altar was the burning of incense with holy fire taken from the altar of sacrifice in the court, in order that the fragrant smoke of the incense might rise and penetrate both through and over the separating veil into the very presence of God. Thus the altar was the instrument, the means to an end, and stood before the veil; the purpose was the thing produced, the expression of the soul in communion with God, and this reached within the veil. The earthly high priest spent a large portion of his time, if he lived up to his name, in interceding for himself and his people at this altar, but he was particularly enjoined to burn incense on it at the time of the morning and evening sacrifices, directly after dressing and lighting the lamps of the golden lampstand. It was to be "a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations" (Ex. 30:7, 8). From the word perpetual we may conclude that it burnt continually, from one relighting to the next. Thus the congregation without would join in the morning and evening worship at stated times, but those with spiritual insight doubtless joined in spirit with the high priest in praying as they went about their daily business—just as Paul bids us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). Soon the duty of trimming the lamps and burning the incense came to be shared with the ordinary priests. These later became very numerous, and were divided into twenty-four orders, or courses (1 Chronicles 24); thus we read in the first chapter of Luke concerning Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, that "while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, ... his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense" (Luke 1:8-10).

The high priest

The mention of the high priest brings us to the dynamic element within the tabernacle and to the discussion of God's way. The whole tabernacle sprang into life only with the inauguration of the sacrificial services, all of which were carried out by the priesthood under the supervision of the high priest. Every sacrifice was a prefiguration of the Saviour's gift of His own life in the sinner's stead, and a memorial of the primeval promise of a Redeemer. Thus a merciful Creator, foreseeing that His people would fall into sin through the weakness of their fallen nature, provided for them, immediately after He pro claimed His law from Sinai, a detailed and complete object lesson by which they might learn all the essential aspects of the gospel. This was God's way, embodied in the very life and death and resurrection of His incarnate Son to such a degree that Christ could rightly say: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6).

The sacrificial death of Christ, though the climax of His life, was the foundation stone, the very first step in the way of redemption, the full and complete price of the atonement for sin. The altar of sacrifice where the priests carried out all the animal sacrifices typifying Christ's offering of His life, was significantly placed outside the tabernacle, in the court that surrounded it. The principle brought to view here is that the worshiper is neither fit nor able to enter into the presence of the Lord unless he is first cleansed by accepting the vicarious sacrifice of the Saviour, through repentance, confession and faith. Before the promulgation of the law from Mount Sinai, the Lord had called the whole nation of Israel into a close relationship with Himself, a covenant or agreement by which they were to be His "peculiar treasure . . . above all people" and "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Ex. 19:5, 6). This is exactly the same relationship as that of the Christian church, to whom Peter wrote: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priest hood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:9). It is therefore clear that both Israelites and Christians were to see themselves, in their spiritual lives and activities, mirrored in the persons and service of the priests as they cooperated with their great High Priest.

The burning of the sacrificial animal shadowed forth the removal of the guilt and penalty of sin, a cleansing of the penitent soul that was later represented in the Christian church by baptism, a complete washing away of and death to sin (Rom. 6:4). The altar stood in a direct line between the door of the court and the entrance to the tabernacle. A little nearer to the tabernacle, in the same line, stood the brazen laver, a large round receptacle filled with water, at which the priests were directed to wash their hands and feet after dealing with the sacrifices and before entering the sacred tent. This was a clear symbol of the washing away of the defilement of sins committed after the first great cleansing, and it is to this rite that our Lord evidently alluded when washing His disciples' feet: "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit" (John 13:10). But while the priests washed their own feet at the brazen laver, our Saviour made it clear that it was He and He alone who could in reality wash His followers clean of sin committed since baptism, for as the physical cleansing lay in the water, so the spiritual cleansing could only be derived from Him who is Himself the Water of Life.

1 Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry
and Services (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Pub. Co. ,1954).

2 Frederick Whitfield, The Tabernacle, Priesthood
and Offerings of Israel (Welwyn Garden City:
James Nisbet and Co., 1884).


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E. Randall Binns, a retired college professor living in England, is author of the book Archaeology of the Mind, from which this article is excerpted. See Shop Talk for special price on book.

May 1986

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