The most commonly accepted understanding of the symbolism of the tabernacle is its portrayal of the Lord Jesus Christ as the tabernacle or dwelling place of God with men. The Scriptural basis for this interpretation is found in John 1:14 where the correct translation reads:
"And the Word became flesh and tabernacled (Greek Skenoo, to live in a tent, to tabernacle) among us."
This view has been well set forth by
various writers, and to attempt to deal with the tabernacle once again
from this viewpoint would be to break up ground that has already been
However, in addition to the Christ-centered interpretation of the tabernacle's symbolism, there are other possibilities for expounding that same symbolism along different lines. There are clear indications in the New Testament that in addition to its symbolic portrayal of Christ, the tabernacle was also intended as a type of the church; and that, further, its physical layout (the courtyard, the holy place and the holy of holies) was intended to represent the dispensations of promise, law, and grace, respectively.
In Hebrews 9:1-5, the tabernacle with its two-fold division is described; then in vss. 6-9 the writer says:
"Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle (holy place), accomplishing the service of God. But into the second (holy of holies) went the high priest alone, once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the errors of the people: The Holy Ghost thus signifying, that the way into the holiest of all (holy of holies) was not yet made manifest while as the first tabernacle (holy place) was yet standing (lit. as yet had its standing): which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices that could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience."
Notice that the holy place is said to be a figure of a time, or
period of time; specifically the period of time during which the tabernacle
was in use. This would be the period, or dispensation, of the
Law. Then, following the same analogy, the court would seem to represent
the patriarchal period, or the dispensation of promise. In like
manner, the holy of holies would represent the age of grace.
Let us now note how each of these three divisions does indeed reflect the features of the respective dispensations which they figure. These three periods are referred to in Gal. 3:16-17, 23-25:
"Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that It should make the promise of none effect ....But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster, to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster."
In this passage, the advent of the age or dispensation of
Grace is spoken of as the coming of faith, which is the channel of
grace and therefore the outstanding feature thereof.
Looking first at the outer court as a divinely provided illustration of the patriarchal age, we start by considering its furnishings: The first of these encountered, as one entered the gate of the court and proceeded toward the tabernacle, would be the brasen altar, which was the place of sacrifice. The presence of the altar in an enclosure which represents the patriarchal age would seem to suggest that sacrifice or atonement through sacrifice, was a feature of that period. This, of course, is true. During the patriarchal period, the head of the family functioned as the family priest; he built altars and offered sacrifices thereon for himself and his family.
The only other fixture in the court was the laver at which the priests were required to wash their hands and feet before administering their priestly functions. New Testament Scriptures lead us to believe that washing or bathing in water is a figure of regeneration. For example, consider Titus 3:5:
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost."
The presence, in the court, of a fixture which speaks of regeneration, would lead us to believe that regeneration also was a feature of the patriarchal age; and again the belief is correct. Although regeneration is not actually mentioned in reference to the patriarchal age, recourse to a bit of logic will prove to us that men such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were regenerated, or born from above. In John 3:5, Jesus said:
"Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God."
Then in Luke 13:28, he asserts that the three above-mentioned patriarchs, as well as the prophets, are in the kingdom of God:
"There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the Kingdom of God, and you, yourselves thrust out."
Thus it would seem that, although regeneration as a doctrine was
introduced in the N.T., it was experienced in O.T. times by those of
the patriarchs who were saved.
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As noted above, the altar and the laver were the only fixtures
found in the court and we have seen that they represented sacrificial
atonement and regeneration, respectively. However, it is also profitable
to take note of those things that were missing in the court, though
found in the next division of the tabernacle- the holy place. Thus we
note that there was no food supplied in the court (other than certain
portions of certain sacrifices) while the shewbread was to be found in
the holy place. This shewbread pictured Christ as the bread of life
as revealed in the written word of God. But, of course, in the
patriarchal age, which is figured by the court, there was no written word
of God; so that the lack of bread or other sustenance in the courtyard
is in complete harmony with the facts concerning the age which it
We also notice that, while there was a seven-branched lampstand in the holy place, and the Shekinah glory in the Holy of Holies, only natural light was to be found in the courtyard. The lampstand in the holy place symbolized the written word of God in its capacity of lightgiver (See Psa. 119:105). But, as we have already noted, there was no written word of God during the patriarchal period. The only light of revelation on which the people of that time could depend was the natural revelation of the created universe. Of course, God occasionally gave to Abraham and the other patriarchs direct revelations of his will, but such revelations did not constitute a permanent light such as the Bible. Therefore, in keeping with these facts, only the light of nature illuminated the courtyard.
Still another deficiency is noticeable in the court; there was nothing to correspond to the golden altar of incense which was in the holy place. This altar speaks of prayer, intercession, praise, and other expressions of worship on the basis of a sacrifice made in the past. In other words, no sacrifice was made at the golden altar; rather it was a place where worship was offered on the basis of a sacrifice already made at the brasen altar. However, in the court there was no golden altar nor counterpart thereof; the lack of which suggests that in the patriarchal period sacrifice and worship were inseparable. This again is true; the patriarchs had no provision for formal worship apart from sacrifice. We shall see presently that under the dispensation of law there was such a provision.
Let us now consider the outer court as to its scope. By referring to the attached diagram of the tabernacle, it will be seen that the court includes within its area the entire tabernacle proper; including both the holy place and the holy of holies. In like manner, the dispensation of promise includes within its scope both the dispensations of law and grace. Paul points out in Gal. 3:17 that the law, coming 450 years after Abraham's time, did not abrogate or disannul the promises made to Abraham. These promises included provisions that still remain to be completely fulfilled and which will find that fulfillment only in the Messianic Kingdom. Thus the dispensation of promise preceded both law and grace; ran concurrently with the law; is now running concurrently with the age of grace, and will continue for a time after the age of grace has ended. These relationships are clearly shown by the schematic plan of the tabernacle.
Let us now consider the dispensational significance of the holy place. Here we are on solid ground; for the N.T. (Heb. 9:8-9) tells us that the holy place (first tabernacle) was a figure of the time then present; that is, the period of the law. Such being the case, we would expect to find, in the holy place, furnishings which illustrate the salient features of the dispensation of the law.
However, before we consider the furnishings of the holy place, let us give our attention to another point of interest. We have noted that the writer of Hebrews makes the holy place a figure of the dispensation or period of the law. Following the writer's analogy, we perceive that the holy of holies would then represent the period which followed that of the law; namely, the age of grace. However, since the holy place and the holy of holies are both parts of a larger unit, the tabernacle proper, it would seem to be implied that both the age of the law and the age of grace are merely the two divisions of a larger period. Is there, in fact, any other period of time which began when the law did, and which runs concurrently with law and grace, and which will end with the termination of the age of grace? The answer is definitely in the affirmative! There is such a period having the above-mentioned limits and which bears such a relationship to both law and grace that they can be said to be mere divisions of it. This period is what we may call the dispensation of the written word of God.
The law and the written word had a common beginning and it seems fairly certain that the written word, as to its present effectiveness, will terminate with the age of grace. This is not to say that the Bible will be destroyed or lost at that time; but rather that it was designed, as a manual of discipline, only for the periods of law and grace. In other words, in the Bible we have detailed instructions as to how men should live whether under law or under grace. But beyond the point of the Rapture, the Bible can no longer be regarded as an instruction book, for its references to the periods following the rapture are merely in the nature of predictions of events with little or no instruction as to how man should live through those events. It appears, then, that the Bible's overall effectiveness will have been fulfilled contemporaneously with the termination of the age of grace.
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Knowing, then, that both law and grace are divisions of a third
period which exactly included them both, and which may be called the
dispensation of the written word of God, we are the better prepared to
deal with the symbolism of the three major fixtures in the holy place.
First we consider the seven-branched lampstand. We already have pointed out that this seven-fold lamp would appear (on the basis of such passages as Psa. 119:105) to be a figure of the word of God in its light-giving, or illuminating, capacity. The patriarchs, aside from occasional direct revelations, had only the light of natural revelation on which to rest their faith; but under the dispensation of the law, men had the written word of God, an everpresent revelation whose light, like that of the lampstand, was always available and which was not to be hidden by the clouds that sometimes obscured the natural light of the sun.
But why a seven-branched lampstand? Since seven is a number used in the Scriptures to denote completeness or perfection, the writer believes that the use of a seven-branched lamp Is God's way of asserting that the written word of God, in any and every stage of its development, was always a perfect and complete revelation insofar as the needs of the people of that particular time were concerned. In other words, for at least forty years, the Hebrews had not more than five, and probably fewer, books of the Old Testament; yet those few books were entirely adequate for the needs of the people at that time.
The next item found in the holy place was the table of shewbread. This shewbread was displayed on the table from one sabbath to the next. It then was replaced by fresh bread and the old bread was eaten by the priests. The shewbread became thus, in the end, food for God's priests. It therefore pictures the written word of God in its life-sustaining quality. Man's physical nature can be nourished by bread and the other products of an accursed ground, but his spiritual nature requires something purer- the word of God. When Jesus was tempted by Satan to satisfy his hunger by using his divine power to turn stones into bread, he answered:
"It is written, man shall not live by bread
alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
The third and last item found in the holy place was the golden
altar of incense. This incense altar was used for the purpose of
offering incense to God. Incense is a type of worship, especially
prayer (note Rev. 5:8, where odours is literally incense. See
also Psalm l4l:2). However, before the altar was put into use, it was
first smeared with blood taken from the sin offering on the Day of
Atonement. Each year on the Day of Atonement, this procedure was
repeated. Thus the priests, on behalf of Israel, offered up incense
throughout the year on the ground of the sin-offering which had been
made on the Day of Atonement. Herein is pictured the fact that Israel's
worship was acceptable from one Day of Atonement to the next because
of the sin-offering which was offered on behalf of the people on that
occasion. This is in marked contrast to the patriarchal period during
which worship seemed to be inseparable from sacrifice.
According to the plan of the tabernacle, the holy place ended where the holy of holies began- at the inner vail. This vail, according to Hebrews 10:19-20, was a type of the flesh, or body, of Jesus Christ. When the body of Christ was figuratively broken in death, the vail of the temple (which then corresponded to the tabernacle) was rent from the top to the bottom. Thus the death of Jesus signified the end of the legal dispensation and the opening of the way of access into the age of grace, which by previously shown analogy, must be represented by the holy of holies.
The only item of furnishing found in the holy of holies was the ark. The mercy seat, which is often spoken of as though it were a separate item, was actually the lid of the ark. The ark was intended to represent a coffin, for such is the proper meaning of the Hebrew word aron which is translated ark. See Gen. 50:26 where the word aron is translated coffin. The purpose of this coffin was to foreshadow the fact that in due time God would die as a man on behalf of his people. It is, therefore, a symbol of the death of God, the Son, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the outer court stood the brasen altar which was the site of innumerable animal sacrifices, but in the holy of holies stood a symbol of the death of God, himself; which we know found its fulfillment, historically, in the death of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Every sacrifice offered on the brasen altar pointed, of course, to the death of Christ, and this symbolism was made very plain, on the Day of Atonement, when the blood of the animal sin offering was carried into the holy of holies and was sprinkled upon the mercy seat, or lid of the ark. Thus it was graphically shown that the blood of the sacrifice slain at the altar was supposed to correspond with the blood of the One whose coffin stood in the holy of holies. Thus, in the age of grace, pictured by the holy of holies, we do not deal with types and shadows of the gospel, such as animal sacrifices; but are brought face to face with the realization that on the cross of Calvary:
"God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself."
II Cor. 5:19a.
Instead of the natural light of the outer court, and the artificial
(or man-made) light of the holy place, the holy of holies was
illuminated by the supernatural light of the Shekinah glory of God.
(Lev. l6:2). We are thus assured that the light of this present
dispensation as far surpasses that of the legal age as the cloud of glory
surpassed the light of a seven-branched lampstand. Note Paul's words
in II Cor. 3:7-l8.
Inside the ark were placed the two stone tables of the law, Aaron's rod that budded, and a pot containing an omer of the manna which had been gathered in the wilderness. Thus, instead of the law's being continually executed on a sinner's substitute, as in the outer court, the law itself is found to be executed and consigned to the place of death. See Col. 2:14:
"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinance that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross."
Instead of the man-made shewbread, a feature of the holy place,
there was in the holy of holies, the bread that came down from heaven,
the hidden manna.
Instead of mere regeneration, signified by the laver, we find in
the holy of holies the reality of resurrection as portrayed by Aaron's
rod that budded. This dead rod put forth leaves, flowers and even
bore fruit- a beautiful picture of resurrection-life, which must of
necessity come out of death.
Instead of petitions being raised to a seemingly far-off God, as pictured by the burning of incense on the golden altar in the holy place, the presence of God, himself, is realized In the holy of holies. (Ex. 25:17-22).
However, we must remember that the law, the rod and the manna were all in the ark, which symbolizes the death of Christ. We are therefore taught that if we wish to have access to the hidden manna, the bread of God that came down from heaven; if we wish to become dead to the law, and at the same time be credited with the righteousness thereof; if we would attain unto the resurrection of the dead, we must be identified with Christ in His death. (Rom. 7:4, Phil. 3: 10-11).
John H Mattox