A Tent of Meeting
The holiness of God in his sanctuary is matched by the plan for God to meet with his people at the tabernacle. Now to avoid confusion, it should be said that later, in Exodus 33:7-11 to be exact, there will be a tent constructed that is called the “tent of meeting.” This is not the same thing as the tabernacle. This is a temporary meeting place where Moses met with God, but this was only to last until the tabernacle was constructed. Still, the purpose was the same—to meet with God.
In Exodus 25, there are two verses that make this meeting place explicit.
25:8. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.
25:22. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
While the meeting place plays a significant role in the life of Israel, it also helps Christians today to understand the kind of relationship that we have with God in and through Jesus Christ. Let us notice three ways that the tabernacle in Exodus foreshadows Christ–the true tent of meeting.
Jesus is the True Tabernacle
That God instructs Moses to build this tabernacle foreshadows God’s loving desire to meet with rebellious humanity. In this way, the tabernacle is an incredible source of encouragement. God who dwells in heaven, has moved heaven and earth to reach down to us. When we could not get up to him; he climbed down the ladder to get to us.
John sees this tabernacling impulse of God in Jesus Christ. John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.” The word for “dwelt” is literally “tabernacled.” In Jesus, we have a greater tabernacle, one made without human hands, in which the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col 2:9). Likewise, John says that Jesus is full of grace and truth, which also references Exodus, for in chapter 34, God “appears” to Moses and describes himself as a God as “abounding in steadfast love (grace) and faithfulness (truth).”
When we read about the tabernacle, we cannot comprehend fully its significance without seeing that it is the shadow of the substance of Jesus Christ. Yet, in the tabernacle, we don’t just have a general connection between the tabernacle and Christ, it also gets more specific.
In Exodus 25, there are three kinds of furniture. In verses 25:10-22, Moses receives directions for constructing the ark of the covenant. In verses 23-30, a blueprint for the table for the bread of the presence is given; and in verses 31-40, the golden lampstand, otherwise known as a Menora is given. Each are covered with gold and placed inside the residence of God. Now while the gold speaks of the value and worth of the deity who inhabits this home, the three pieces of furniture—a seat, a table, and a light—were the common furnishing of the ancient Israelite.
When God comes to dwell with Israel, he assumes the same humble residence as those in the wilderness. Though not incarnation in the New Testament sense of the term, this is a kind of incarnation that prepares the way for the true Immanuel. His gracious condescension meets us where we are, and he becomes just like us. He is not just a God transcendent. He is a God close, personal, and as near as the hearing of his word.
We see the incarnation in another way as well. On the inside of the tabernacle are beautiful colors—scarlet, blue, and purple. Everything is covered in gold. It shines forth the glory of God. Yet, from the outside, the temple is drab. The beautiful garments on the inside are covered by the black curtains of goats hair. While the light burns eternal inside the tabernacle, all outside is dark.
Again this teaches us much about the life and ministry of Christ. When he came to the earth, he did not come in power, glory, or beauty. Rather, he became a common carpenter. If you saw him in a crowd, he would not have had a radiant glow or a halo over his head. He was plain and common. He was human. So common was his appearance that Isaiah can say, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should rejoice him” (53:2).
This is the antithesis of our culture and the world at large. In our world, image really is everything. Have you ever see an ugly person on the news? What about on the cover of a magazine? On TV? We are a culture who has confused glamour for beauty. I would go so far as to say that we know little of what true beauty is. The tabernacle is a corrective for this. God’s dwelling with humanity is beautiful. Yet, from an earthly point of view it is unimpressive. Such is the wisdom of God.
Not only does the tabernacle point us to Christ’s incarnation, it also foreshadows and explains his atonement. We see this in the altar and the mercyseat.
The Bronze Altar. Standing in the center of the courtyard, the priests could not enter the tabernacle without passing this giant altar. As T.D. Alexander describes it, “this altar dominated the area in front of the tabernacle; it was half the width of the tabernacle (2.5 metres) and over 4 feet high” (T.D. Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land, 200). It was constantly burning with sacrifices, and as Hebrews picks it up, it teaches us how much more valuable Christ’s New Covenant sacrifice was than all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.
We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood (Heb 13:10-12).
The Mercy Seat. In addition to the altar that stands outside the tabernacle, there is the mercy seat that rests inside God’s inner chamber. It was here that God dwelled, and significantly it was a place where mercy might be found. Though a series of purification rituals were needed for the priest to come into the most holy place once a year on the day of atonement, it was nonetheless a place of mercy and grace in time of need (cf. Heb 4:14-16).
Significantly, the name “mercy seat” is translated in Greek by the word, hilasterion, which is the word translated in English as “expiation,” “propitiation,” or “atoning sacrifice” (see Graham Cole for an up to date, careful, and evangelical reading of hilasterion in the New Testament in his God the Peacemaker). That the the mercy seat is the place where God’s wrath is removed and replaced with his favor is significant; more significant however, is the way in which that propitiation is procured. It is by the blood of the lamb that is sprinkled on the throne of God. In the Old Covenant, this atoning sacrifice permitted God’s people to dwell in his presence. It protected Israel in the flesh from God’s anger breaking out on those in the camp. However, in the New Covenant, Christ’s sacrifice does not merely atone for the flesh; it purifies the conscience as well. Moreover, it is not applied to a shadowy tabernacle on earth; iti is applied to the heavenly altar in the throne room of God. Thus, his sacrifice is far superior and finally efficacious.
Thus we conclude today with the statement in Hebrews 9:12-14, that depends heavily on sacrificial system established in Exodus.