(Ex. 25:10-22) Did the Tabernacle worship and the ark of testimony foreshadow the work of Christ?

Many Bible readers wonder why God included such extensive chapters of Scripture to describe the ark of testimony and the Tabernacle. Why is this in the Bible? Moreover, why was the Tabernacle worship so strict? For instance, when Nadab and Abihu tried to change the worship in the Tabernacle, they were immediately killed by God! (Lev. 10:1-2) Thus God was not only detailed about these practices in the Tabernacle, but he was also strict in its observance. For this reason, Bible readers often ask: Why the specificity and strict practices?

Picture1

The NT authors believed that this all foreshadowed Christ

Throughout the NT, we see that these OT ceremonial laws foreshadowed the work of Christ:

(Col. 2:16-17) Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

(Heb. 8:4-5) Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; 5 who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”

Additionally, Jeremiah predicted a day in the future when the Ark of the Covenant would be rendered unnecessary by God’s work. He writes, “It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land… they will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again” (Jer. 3:16). Let’s consider each aspect of the Tabernacle worship to see how this system predicts the person and work of Christ:

The Tabernacle (Ex. 26)

OT scholar Walter Kaiser notes that the word for tabernacle (miškān) is a derivation of “the word ‘to dwell’ (šāḵan) and is the place where God dwells among his people.”[1] This is a fitting term, because the Tabernacle was really like a big, portable tent that God dwelled in. At the incarnation, Jesus “became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Regarding this passage, D.A. Carson comments, “More literally translated, the Greek verb skenoo means that the Word pitched his tabernacle, or lived in his tent, amongst us.”[2] Thus the Tabernacle itself is a foreshadowing of the incarnation of Christ. In the OT Tabernacle, we find a number of articles of worship that also point forward to Christ’s work.

The Priests (Ex. 28:29-38)

God didn’t allow all of the people to enter into his presence. Instead, he only allowed a small number of priests to do this job. In fact, only one priest (the high priest) was allowed to enter into the innermost part of the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. And this was only permitted once a year on Yom Kippur (“The Day of Atonement”). Exodus records that the high priest represented the people before God:

(Ex. 28:29, 38) Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment over his heart when he enters the holy place, for a memorial before the LORD continually… 38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take away the iniquity of the holy things which the sons of Israel consecrate, with regard to all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD.

Aaron—the high priest—wore the names of the people on his chest—near his heart as he entered the Holy of Holies. In the same way, the author of Hebrews argues that Christ was the ultimate high priest, who interceded for us permanently (Heb. 7:23-28; 9:11-15). He represents us to God so fully that he even records our names in the book of life in heaven (Rev. 21:27).

The Laver (Ex. 30:18-21)

A laver was a place to wash your hands—almost like a holy bathtub outside of the Tabernacle. The priests would have to wash themselves before they could enter the Tabernacle:

(Ex. 30:18-21) “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing; and you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it. 19 “Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet from it; 20 when they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to minister, by offering up in smoke a fire sacrifice to the Lord. 21 “So they shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they will not die; and it shall be a perpetual statute for them, for Aaron and his descendants throughout their generations.”

Without this symbolic washing, the priests would be ceremonially unclean. Even the holy men needed to wash before God. This prefigured the need to have a priest (or intercessor) that was pure, who could enter God’s presence for the people. Because of Christ’s work, believers are all called priests of God (1 Pet. 2:9)—able to come directly into God’s presence (Heb. 4:16).

The Ark of Testimony (Ex. 25:10-22)

Picture5

The Tabernacle was a large, mobile tent that God used to illustrate his separation from the people. Of course, this was a visual representation of a true spiritual reality. Isaiah writes, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (Isa. 59:2). This separation of the Tabernacle curtain was really illustrative of the separation between God and humans. Remember, most of the Jews were illiterate slaves, so these pictorial symbols would be excellent tools to teach the people their problem with God.

(Ex. 25:10-22) “They shall construct an ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and you shall make a gold molding around it. 12 You shall cast four gold rings for it and fasten them on its four feet, and two rings shall be on one side of it and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them.15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it. 16 You shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you. 17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide.18 You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat. 21 You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. 22 There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.

Moses explicitly writes: “You shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you” (Ex. 25:16). In Hebrews 9:4-5, we see that three items went into the ark of the testimony: (1) a jar of manna, (2) Aaron’s rod, and (3) the law. Why were each of these placed in the ark?

1. Jar of manna = God’s provision

God commanded that a jar of manna should be kept in the Ark of the Testimony (Ex. 16:32-34). Moses writes that the manna was really symbolic of God’s provision. In Deuteronomy 8, we read, “[God] humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Later, Jesus said that he himself was God’s ultimate provision for humanity’s hunger (Jn. 6:33-35).

Even though God was providing for his people, they rejected his provision (Num. 21:4-9). Therefore, God wanted them to have a jar of the manna in the ark as evidence of how sinful the people were, rejecting God’s love for them.

2. Aaron’s rod = God’s leadership

In Numbers 16, Korah led a coup against Aaron: God’s chosen leader. As a visible demonstration to the people, God set up a test to the people to show them who should be in charge. Each tribe brought a staff before God in the Tabernacle. Whichever staff grew leaves would be the one that God chose to lead the people. Sure enough, Aaron’s staff budded. After this event took place, God told Moses, “Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put an end to their grumblings against Me, so that they will not die” (Num. 17:10).

Even though God wanted to lead his people, they rejected his leadership. Therefore, God wanted them to place the budded staff in the ark as evidence of how sinful the people were, rejecting God’s leadership for them.

3. The Law = God’s moral direction

After the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), Moses shattered the two tablets that contained the Ten Commandments. But God rewrote the Law, and Moses was told to place this in the ark of testimony. Moses writes, “Then I turned and came down from the mountain and put the tablets in the ark which I had made; and there they are, as the Lord commanded me” (Deut. 10:5). The Ten Commandments were God’s essential law boiled down into a short and simple moral instruction. It is not a coincidence that Moses received the Law, and immediately, the people were breaking it! Moses’ shattering of the original tablets was illustrative of the people’s shattering of the moral law of God.

Even though God wanted to have order for his people, they rejected his moral direction. Therefore, God had them place the tablets of the Law in the ark as evidence of how sinful the people were, rejecting God’s moral direction for them.

Thus the ark of testimony was a box of evidence that convicted the people of their sin. They rejected God’s provision, leadership, and moral direction. What was God supposed to do with these people, who had sinned against him? Why collect all of this legal evidence against them?

The Cherubim and Mercy Seat

The ark also had cherubim (or angels) looking down into the box from above. In Exodus, we read:

(Ex. 25:20-22) “The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat. 21 “You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. 22 “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.

Picture4

This was no doubt symbolic of the angelic order looking down at humanity from heaven. Revelation 5:11 says that there are “myriads of myriads” of angels in the heavenly realm, which would be 100 million![3] This means that an unimaginable amount of celestial beings are looking down at the events on Earth (1 Pet. 1:12). Knowing the just nature of God, these angels must have been wondering what God would do to the sinful people on Earth. This is captured by the picture of the angels looking down into the ark of the testimony, and the guilt that is represented there.

Bloody Forgiveness

Ancient people were familiar with what would happen, when you drained an animal of its blood—it would die. Therefore, God used blood as a symbol for life. In Leviticus, we read:

(Lev. 17:10-11) ‘And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’

God explicitly tells the people here not to drink the blood of the animal, because this would mean that the life of the animal could actually give them life. Instead, once a year, the high priest was to spread the blood of the innocent substitute onto the atonement cover. In Leviticus, we read:

(Lev. 16:14-15) “Moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 15 “Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.

The priest was to do this “because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions” (v.16). As the author of Hebrews explains, “According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Elsewhere, he writes, “Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, 7 but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance” (Heb. 9:6-7). By contrast, Jesus—the perfect substitute and holy priest—entered the spiritual tabernacle “once for all” for the sins of humanity (9:12).[4] It isn’t a coincidence that Jesus tells believers to drink his “blood” at the Lord’s Supper, because now we can actually gain spiritual life through Jesus’ death (Mt. 26:28).

Fulfillment in Christ

It is no wonder why the NT writers believed that these ceremonial laws were fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. Michael Brown writes, “They were the shadow; he is the very substance. In fact, he fulfills the images of both the sacrifice of atonement and the priest who offers that atoning sacrifice to God.”[5] Jesus was:

-able to identify with the people (Ex. 28:29, 38), because he was fully human and fully God (Heb. 2:17).

-sinless (2 Cor. 5:21), so he needed no washing at the laver (Ex. 30:18-21).

-authorized to come into the true tabernacle and actual presence of God, as the perfect substitute (Ex. 26).

-the sacrifice that could really cover the mercy seat and cover our sins of rejecting God’s provision, leadership, and moral law (Ex. 25:10-22; c.f. Heb. 9:22; Jn. 1:29).

-the perfect priest that could intercede for us once for all (Heb. 7:23-28; 9:11-15).

-the true bread of life that could meet our spiritual needs (Deut. 8:3; Jn. 6:33-35).

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that after Jesus died on the Cross, the veil to the Temple was torn in two by God (Mt. 27:51)—visibly demonstrating that Christ had fulfilled the ceremonial symbols found there. For more on the topic of substitutionary atonement, see our earlier article “Defending Penal Substitutionary Atonement”.



[1] Kaiser, Walter. Exodus. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 453.

[2] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 127.

[3] A “myriad” is 10,000.

[4] Kaiser writes, “The verb that lies behind the noun ‘atonement’ in the expression ‘atonement cover’ (v.17) means ‘to ransom or deliver by means of a substitute.’ (There is no word for “lid” or “cover” here.).” Kaiser, Walter. Exodus. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 455.

[5] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Volume Three. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 8.