Hebrews: Lessons from the Tablernacle

Kevin Jones

Today churches from different denominations often use elaborate ceremonies as part of their worship. These may be based on time honoured traditions but are at best the inventions of men. The ceremonies of the Jewish faith were never based on human wisdom, but were commanded by God himself. Moses was warned to build the Tabernacle and its utensils ‘according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’ (Ex 25:40). Its worship and regulations were ‘divine ordinances’ (Heb 9:1 AV). The Tabernacle was a copy or visual representation of God’s heavenly sanctuary, which is why it had to be built so precisely (Heb 8:5; 9:11). Yet neither the Tabernacle nor the Jerusalem Temple were meant to be the final form of worship God required. Now that Jesus has come as our High Priest the old form of worship has been replaced. We do not need to carry a picture of our family when we have them with us. In the same way we no longer need the representations of Christ when we have Christ himself.

The Tabernacle of Moses was divided in to two compartments: the Holy place where the priests served and the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies) where the Ark of the Covenant stood and atonement was made. Just once a year the High Priest entered on behalf of the nation. To understand the Tabernacle we need to understand what it contained and what these items were used for. These furnishings will give us a picture of the ministry of Christ. For the Jews they had a practical purpose; to us they have spiritual significance.

1. The golden lamp stand: Jesus the Light of the world

Here we learn of the nature of Christ. The only light the priests had to work by within the house of God was the light from this lamp. The priest’s first job in the morning and the evening was to trim the wick and add more oil to the lamp. When Jesus came he introduced himself as ‘the light of the world’ (Jn 8:12, 9:5) and in heaven itself we find there is no lamp ‘for… the Lamb is its lamp’ (Rev 21:23). Without Christ there would be no light or welcome in the presence of the living God.

The light of the lamp was meant to be everlasting: ‘Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord…a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come’ (Ex 7:21). The light was never allowed to go out and keeping it supplied with oil was the priest's first duty. The lamp spoke of the eternal presence of God within his house. To the Christian, it speaks of the eternal nature of Christ who is from everlasting and to everlasting. But it also speaks of our worship: we must constantly keep God’s presence within burning brightly and not let the flame of love for God burn low.

The lamp itself was a Menorah, or seven-branched lamp, hammered out of one single peace of gold, each of its branches joined to the central stem. In Rev 1:12-14 we find a similar picture of Jesus: ‘And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, and among the lamp stands was someone ‘like a son of man’…’. The seven branches of the candlestick represent the seven churches dispersed throughout Asia Minor, but united through their connection to Christ, the central pillar. The place where God is tangibly present is not now a temple but the Church of Jesus Christ.

A lamp stand has no light of its own; that is supplied by the oil and the wick. So with the Church: she has no light unless she is connected to Christ, the light of the world. The Church must never become simply another religious organisation. What defines a Church is the presence of God. If he removes his presence it ceases to be a Church. This happened in the old covenant, when the glory of God departed from the Temple (Ezekiel 10-11). The single lamp with seven branches reminds us of the Church’s need to be united not by denomination or by special covenants, but by our common faith in Christ.

The lamp was a beaten lamp, ‘hammered out of pure gold’ (Ex 25:36). The hammering speaks of the suffering of Christ, since it was only through suffering that the light of Christ shone into the world. As Christ’s followers we too are meant to shine before others: 'You are the light of the world... let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven' (Matt 5:14-16). The lamp speaks both of our welcome in the presence of God and of our witness as we shine with the glory he supplies (2 Cor 3:18).

The Altar of Incense: Prayer and Worship

Here the emphasis is on prayer and worship. Incense is never used for worship in the New Testament church, but we do find it mentioned in Rev 5:8-9 and 8:3-4 as symbolic of 'the prayers of the saints'. Now that the way into God’s presence is open the symbol has passed and the reality has come.

Where was this altar of incense situated, and what was was its purpose? The text in Hebrews implies that the altar was in the Most Holy Place, but in Exodus 30:6-10 we find it in the first sanctuary. So why does Hebrews place it in the second sanctuary (Heb 9:3-4)? The author is taking us to one particular day when the altar did stand in the inner room - the Day of Atonement. On that one day in the year the High Priest could stand in God’s direct presence, surrounded by the prayers of the people (represented in the smoke from the incense) and not die. It was not the incense that gave him access, but the blood of the sacrifice. The priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice over the mercy seat on top of the ark and on the horns of the altar of incense. The first action covered their sin, the second sanctified their worship. The ark contained the laws of God which the people had broken, but God saw the blood of sacrifice and overlooked the broken law. For the Hebrews, the sacrifice was the blood of a bull or goat, which can never take away sin; for us it is the blood of Christ which alone is acceptable to God.

Christ’s birth was marked with a gift of incense from the wise men, but incense is no use without the coal to bring out its sweet fragrance. A coal from the altar of sacrifice was added to the censer so that the incense would burn. So incense speaks not only of worship but of sacrifice. It was the blood of the sacrifice that made the offering of the incense acceptable; and it is the blood of Christ that makes our worship acceptable. Just as the High Priest alone could represent his people before God, so Jesus our High Priest is the only one who has the right to stand before God on our behalf. He has offered His sacrificial blood and now he stands between us and God as the intercessor. When Christians pray 'in the name of Christ' they are not simply repeating a formula, but coming to God through their High Priest and intermediary. God is holy and his worshippers can approach him only through the blood of sacrifice. The sons of Aaron learned this to their cost (read the story in Lev 10:1-2). The altar of incense teaches us of worship, but it is worship that has been fired by the blood. Worship without the blood can not be acceptable to God.

Incense was to be offered morning and evening, a perpetual offering to the Lord. In the same way Christians are called to bring continual prayer and praise before their Lord ('Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise' - Heb 13:15). Now that the way to God is open we are invited into his Holy Place, what a high and holy privilege. For Christians prayer is not at some specific point such as morning and evening, though this may be helpful, but is the attitude of a heart that can be turned to God at any moment. Prayer is the 'incense' of the believer. Offering incense in Christian worship is not necessarily wrong, but it is primarily an Old Testament practice to suggest the presence of God and symbolise prayer. As with all visual aids, we must be careful not to confuse the symbol with the substance. If we rely on sweet smelling incense rather than true prayer we will be sorely disappointed.

The Table of Showbread: Fellowship and the Word

Here we learn of fellowship and the word. Twelve loaves were placed weekly before the Lord in the Holy Place, one for each of the tribes of Israel. The bread was made without yeast but was sprinkled with incense. Yeast represents sin; if we are to worship God then no sin must hide in our hearts.

Jesus ('the living bread' - John 6:51) taught that ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God' (Matt 4:4). Just as bread is the staple food of life, so the word of God is the food of the believer. We encounter the Living Word through the written word. Believers who do not know their Bible are believers who do not fully know their Lord.

Tabernacle worship cannot be recreated today. These worshippers only had a shadow of the reality now available in Christ. We have moved from shadow to substance. The ceremony of the Tabernacle pointed forward to the ministry and worship of Christ. The lesson is important: outward ceremony cannot bring us close to God. We need to live in the reality of the Holy Place, not the ceremony of the outer room. For the Israelite the way to God was closed – 'the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing' (Heb 9:8). Only one man could come before God and then he was surrounded by incense and bearing the blood. Now all who will, may come!

We have moved on from the place of ceremonies. 'They are only…external regulations applying until the time of the new order' (Heb 9:10). Now that Christ has come we must take care not to worship with ceremony and form alone, but in Spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24).

The Rev D Kevin Jones is a minister in St Peter, Jersey.

Headline, Summer 2004 pp 13-14.