For just a brief moment, close your eyes and imagine the three compartments of the sanctuary and reflect on this question: If you had to spend a day in the sanctuary, where would you like to be? Would you choose to be near the Shekinah glory in the Most Holy Place or would you rather be in the outer court, shielded from God’s presence by as many veils as possible?
Many people have agreed with the words of Elihu who told Job, “I won’t ask to speak with God; why should I give him a chance to destroy me?” “God’s power is so great that we cannot come near him.” (Job 37:20,23) Sanctuary symbolism is often used to suggest that we need as many things as possible between us and God. For example, the function of priests has been described as necessary because we need someone “better” to put in a good word with God for us; the blood is sometimes depicted as shielding us from God’s wrath; and words like “propitiation” are used in association with the lid over the ark of the covenant (Romans 3:25).
On the other hand, it would seem that the whole point of setting up the tabernacle in the first place was because God wanted to come closer: “The people must make a sacred Tent for me, so that I may live among them” (Exodus 25:8). And, there have been individuals like Moses who “Spoke face to face with God as a man speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).
But most convincingly, if we can just wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus was God in human form, in Jesus we see a God very much trying to come close. Remarkably, Jesus even came close to people that society perceives as outcasts – tax collectors, prostitutes, fisherman, and lepers. And Jesus many times said that friendship and intimacy is what God really wants, “I don’t want to call you servants any longer…I would rather call you friends.” (John 15:15)
The sanctuary system is designed in a way that beautifully invites us to better understand how we are to enter into this closer friendship with God. I suggested last time that the 3 main compartments represent individuals at three different stages in relationship to God. The brazen altar in the outer court represents the unconverted mind, the altar of incense in the Holy Place represents the converted mind, and the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place represents the “sealed” mind of an individual who is fully “at-one” with God and experiencing a joyful relationship with God (represented by the Shekinah glory). I’d like to explore this in a bit more detail in this article.
The brazen altar was made of bronze, not gold, and this is where the animal was sacrificed. The death of the animal of course symbolizes the death of Jesus which was the ultimate revelation of God’s character. A God who would lay down his life for his rebellious children is certainly a God who can be trusted. At the Cross we see Jesus, the strongest, laying down his life for the weaker and the Cross is confirmation that God loves others more than self, and that his kingdom is based on self-sacrificial, other-centered love. The officer at the Cross had never seen anything like this before: “The army officer saw what had happened, and he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly he was a good man!’” (Luke 23:47)
It is “the kindness of God that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4) and wherever this kind of love is revealed the natural response is conversion or repentance which really means to change ones mind. In the Greek, repentance is “meta-noia” – noia is brain and meta is to change (like metamorphosis).
For example, we discussed the self-sacrificial love of the priest to Jean Valjean in the book “Les Miserables” and how that action transformed his entire life as he changed his mind about the right way to live. Likewise, the death of Stephen, in which he prayed for those who stoned him to death, is quite possibly what triggered the conversion of Saul. Saul witnessed Stephen’s death and he knew that this kind of love for others was the ideal…and it bothered him. To suppress these thoughts he pushed harder to imprison and kill more Christians, but then on the Damascus road Jesus essentially said to Saul, “Your conscience is really bothering you isn’t it Saul?” and Saul then gave in to this new picture of God. As evidence of this, Paul would later reveal this same ideal of love for others, “I wish I could be condemned and cut off from Christ for the sake of others…” (Romans 9:3)
Paul now had adopted the motto of the kingdom, which is love and service for others:
“Let love make you serve one another. For the whole Law is summed up in one commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14)
“Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves. And look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own.” (Philippians 2:3)
“In brotherly love let your feelings of deep affection for one another come to expression and regard others as more important than yourself.” (Romans 12:10)
The point is that the revelation of the intense, other-centered, self-sacrificial love of God (symbolized by the death of the animal on the brazen altar) is what leads to conversion. Whenever people are exposed to the glory of God’s true character, goodness, and love, there is a fantastic opportunity of change and the bronze altar is transformed into a golden altar of incense that is now in the Holy Place.
At every stage in the sanctuary we see the work of the Holy Spirit and on the bronze altar the animal and the organs are burned with fire which represents the Holy Spirit presenting the truth about God to our minds and then transforming the character of the individual.
Prior to entering the Holy Place the priests then wash their hands and feet in the laver which signifies baptism – the spiritual birth of a person who has now become a “believer.” The old man of sin is dead and in the ground and the person is raised to newness of life in Jesus Christ.
“I am telling you the truth,’ replied Jesus, ‘that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. A person is born physically of human parents, but is born spiritually of the Spirit.’” (John 3:5,6)
As the new convert enters the Holy Place, they pass through a veil which had separated them from God. These veils represent lies and distortions about who God is and it is interesting that angels are woven into the veils, perhaps alluding to the “war in heaven” that began in God’s very presence. The veil is removed when our picture of God becomes Jesus Christ:
“However, their minds became closed. In fact, to this day the same veil is still there when they read the Old Testament. It isn’t removed, because only Christ can remove it. Yet, even today, when they read the books of Moses, a veil covers their minds. But whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (2 Corinthians 3:14-16)
The 3 objects in the Holy Place then represent the key elements in the Christian life:
First, the table of Showbread which was made and eaten by the priests and represents the word of God. As “believers” we are to be immersed in the study of God’s word. Just as bread assimilates throughout the entire physical being, so the word of God when internalized also becomes a part of the person and changes the way we think and act. This is spiritual food and we die spiritually without it:
“The LORD was teaching you that people need more than food to live–they need every word that the LORD has spoken.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
The lampstand represents the witness of “the church” (i.e. – God’s friends) as we reveal who God is to those around us. We have already mentioned that in the book of Revelation Jesus is in the Holy Place with the church and that “…the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (Revelation 1:20) We are to be a light to the world about who God is and I think it’s significant that the lamps in the Holy Place were instructed to be “…set up so that they shine toward the front” (Exodus 25:36-39) so that light would leave the Holy Place as a witness to others. So it is with us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, so that all the world may be saved.” (Acts 13:47)
Of course, oil is in the lampstand and is necessary for its light. Once again, this represents the work of the Holy Spirit as he brings to our minds an ever increasing understanding of God’s character:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, who will stay with you forever. He is the Spirit, who reveals the truth about God.” (John 14:16,17)
“The Helper will come—the Spirit, who reveals the truth about God and who comes from the Father. I will send him to you from the Father, and he will speak about me.” (John 15:26)
“When, however, the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth.” (John 16:13)
The ornate buds, flowers and almonds on the lampstand (Exodus 37) represent a change of character (the “fruits of the spirit”) and these people now reflect the character of Jesus Christ. “The Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Finally, the golden altar with incense represents the converted mind of an individual who is in daily prayerful communion with God. “This offering of incense is to continue without interruption for all time to come…” (Exodus 30:6-10) and the incense symbolizes prayer, “Think of my prayer as sweet-smelling incense” (Psalms 141:1-2).
Just as the incense was to “continue without interruption”, so Paul would advise us to “pray without interruption” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). This doesn’t mean we should be on our knees all day but rather this is to be aware of God’s constant presence and to be in joyful union with him – moment by moment. “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life IN UNION with Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
But the story doesn’t end there. Our destiny is to come still closer to God and when Jesus died, the veil between the Holy and Most Holy Place was ripped from top to bottom. The message is, “Come in! Come closer!” Jesus’ revelation of God’s character (symbolized by the blood) stimulates in us the desire to break down any doors that separate us from God and to boldly enter in.
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. This is the new, life-giving way that Christ has opened up for us through the sacred curtain, by means of his death for us. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s people, let us go right into the presence of God, with true hearts fully trusting him. For our evil consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 9:19-22)
In Jesus, we know that God is good! Based on Jesus’ revelation of God, our attitude should be that we want to crash through any barriers that keep us from God. “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace…” (Hebrews 4:16).
The Ark of the Covenant then represents the person who is fully “at-one” with God. I like Greg Boyd’s description of the intense and joyful intimacy that is possible with God: “Dancing with the Triune God.”
Just as there are 3 objects in the Holy Place, so there are 3 items inside the covenant box.
The Manna represents Christ
“I am telling you the truth,’ Jesus said. ‘What Moses gave you was not the bread from heaven; it is my Father who gives you the real bread from heaven. For the bread that God gives is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ ‘Sir,’ they asked him, ‘give us this bread always.’ ‘I am the bread of life,’ Jesus told them… The bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever…The words I have spoken to you bring God’s life-giving Spirit.’” (John 6:32-63)
We are to ingest this Manna, which is to have Christ in us! “We…have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:15) and incredibly, “…our life in this world is the same as Christ’s” (1 John 4:17). Jesus’ last prayer with his disciples the night before he died describes the intimacy that is possible with God, “May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:21).
Just as the lampstand in the Holy Place was ornate with buds, almonds and flowers, so was Aaron’s rod in the Covenant Box: “The next day, when Moses went into the Tent, he saw that Aaron’s stick, representing the tribe of Levi, has sprouted. It had budded, blossomed, and produced ripe almonds!” (Numbers 17:2,3,8). Once again, this represents the character transformation from a “dull stick” to a person who now reflects the character of Christ and the fruits of the Spirit.
Also, the 10 commandments are in the covenant box which represents the law of other-centered love that is now written on the mind:
“The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach a neighbor to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. I, the Lord, have spoken’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
“I will give them a new heart and a new mind. I will take away their stubborn heart of stone and will give them an obedient heart. Then they will keep my laws and faithfully obey all my commands. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19,20)
“I will sprinkle clean water on you and make you clean from all your idols and everything else that has defiled you. I will give you a new heart and a new mind. I will take away your stubborn heart of stone and give you an obedient heart. I will put my spirit in you and will see to it that you follow my laws and keep all the commands I have given you.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
When we consider having “the law” written on the heart and mind, remember that Jesus and Paul both described ALL law as to have love for God and love for neighbor. These people who dwell in intimacy with God have now fully adopted the one and only law of the kingdom. In fact, which “law” could you possibly break when you have absolute love for God and for others?
Over the Covenant Box was the lid, which represents Jesus. Jesus (who is fully God!) is the one who condescended to become a human in order to restore us (represented by the Covenant Box) back into fellowship with God (represented by the Shekinah glory).
Romans 3:25 refers to Jesus as the lid (In Greek: hilastērion). Unfortunately, this is one of the most misunderstood verses in the entire Bible. Luther referred to this as “Gnadenstuhl” which in English was translated as the “Mercy Seat”. This isn’t the time to tackle Romans 3:25, but for now, in the context of what I have described the lid could not possibly be for the purpose of shielding us from God or assuaging his wrath. Jesus was rather “a sacrifice for reconciliation” (Romans 3:25, NJB) which was meant to bring us closer.
I love this translation of Romans 3:25 by Dr. Tim Jennings:
“God presented Jesus as the way and means of restoration, through trust established by the evidence of God’s character revealed when Christ died.”
Words like “reconciliation” and “restoration” come closer to describing the function of the lid as we are brought back into friendship with God:
“We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son. Now that we are God’s friends, how much more will we be saved by Christ’s life! But that is not all; we rejoice because of what God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has now made us God’s friends” (Romans 5:10,11).
I’ve often had the feeling that life isn’t as full as it should be – like something is missing. By all worldly standards, I have nothing to complain about: 3 wonderful children, a wife who I love very much, a great job, health, and no shortage of food or shelter. But yet, there is a deep sense that there is something that is yet unfulfilled. I believe that the essence of this longing reflects a desire for complete and total union with God, living moment to moment in his presence, hearing his voice, seeing others through his eyes, touching the world with his hands, and something along the lines of the face-to-face relationship that Moses had with God. When I imagine the Covenant Box intimately joined to the Shekinah glory via the lid, it stimulates in me an incredible hope and desire for a deeper friendship with God.
I love this description of Moses’ experience with God:
“Amidst the solemn majesty of the mountain solitudes Moses was alone with God. Everywhere the Creator’s name was written. Moses seemed to stand in His presence and to be overshadowed by His power. Here his self-sufficiency was swept away. In the presence of the Infinite One he realized how weak, how inefficient, how short-sighted, is man. Here Moses gained that which went with him throughout the years of his toilsome and care-burdened life–a sense of the personal presence of the Divine One. Not merely did he look down the ages for Christ to be made manifest in the flesh; he saw Christ accompanying the host of Israel in all their travels. When misunderstood and misrepresented, when called to bear reproach and insult, to face danger and death, he was able to endure “as seeing Him who is invisible.” Hebrews 11:27
“Moses did not merely think of God, he saw Him. God was the constant vision before him. Never did he lose sight of His face. To Moses faith was no guesswork; it was a reality. He believed that God ruled his life in particular; and in all its details he acknowledged Him. For strength to withstand every temptation, he trusted in Him. The great work assigned him he desired to make in the highest degree successful, and he placed his whole dependence upon divine power. He felt his need of help, asked for it, by faith grasped it, and in the assurance of sustaining strength went forward.
“Such was the experience that Moses gained by his forty years of training in the desert. To impart such an experience, Infinite Wisdom counted not the period too long or the price too great…The highest testimony to the greatness of Moses, the judgment passed upon his life by Inspiration, is, “There arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” Deuteronomy 34:10.” (1)
Face to face with God – that is our destiny and our greatest hope!
- Education, pages 63 and 64