The Tabernacle Encyclopedia

The Tabernacle. The tabernacle is one of the great Old Testament types, along with the type set forth in the overall journey of Israel from Egypt to Canaan. In order to understand the typical meaning of the tabernacle, we need to read the book of Hebrews, which gives us teaching on the Old Testament. We find in Hebrews 8 and 9 that the tabernacle of Israel was “the example and shadow of heavenly things” (Heb. 8:2), “a figure for the time then present” (Heb. 9:9), and “the patterns of things in the heavens” (Heb. 9:23). Further, we find that layout of the tabernacle sets forward a line of teaching concerning access into the presence of God (Heb. 9:8; 10:19). The great point is that the believer in Christianity is brought into the very presence of God, whereas in the Old Testament none but the high priest could enter, and only with blood once a year.

Elements of the Tabernacle. The parts of the tabernacle all have symbolic meaning, and usually they speak of Christ! The objects in the tabernacle, its coverings, its furnishings, etc. give us positively the glories of Christ, but the access of the tabernacle is a contrast to what the Christian enjoys, and thereby shows us the negative of what Christ has opened up for us through His Person and work. The tabernacle therefore provides a shadow of good things to come, and yet there is a contrast between the shadow and the substance.

  • The Tabernacle. The tabernacle in general represents the habitation of God on earth. God told Moses to build the tabernacle so that He could dwell among them (Exodus 29:46). The tabernacle sets forward several things, all having to do with the dwelling or presence of God. First, the tabernacle represents Christ, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Col. 2:9). “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt (tabernacled) among us” (John 1:14). Second, the tabernacle represents the Church, the habitation of God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). Third, the tabernacle represents the heavens, the dwelling-place of God (Heb. 4:14). The layout of the tabernacle is also taken up in Hebrews as typical of heaven in three aspects (Heb. 9:23-34). The outer court of the tabernacle represents the first or physical heaven (Psa. 19:1; Gen. 1:14-17; Heb. 3:4), the first veil opened into “the holy place” representing the second or spiritual heaven (Eph. 1:3; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; Eph. 6:12), and the second veil opened into “the holiest of all” representing the third or eternal heaven which is the immediate presence of God (2 Cor. 12). Jesus as our great High Priest has passed “through the heavens” – as in type Aaron on the Day of Atonement passed through the outer court and holy place – and is seated at the right hand of God!1
  • The Holy Place. Inside the first veil was the holy place, where the priests would enter daily in the service of the tabernacle. The holy place represents the enjoyment of Christ and the blessings that we have through Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3).
  • The Table of Showbread. This table speaks of God coming down to meet man’s need in Christ as a man. It speaks of spiritual food and fellowship with God. Is is the communion of which Christ is the source and center. The bread on the table was the food of the priests, and it speaks of Christ in glory as the theme of our fellowship, and as the food that sustains His people.
  • The Candlestick. The golden candlestick speaks of divine light in Christ, shining forth in seven-fold perfection, the fullness of the glory of God reflected in Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit (oil).
  • The Altar of Incense. The altar of incense or golden altar speaks of the fragrance of the Person of Christ, and of our acceptance before God in His place. Nothing is said about this altar until Exodus 30, after the priesthood is described. This shows that this altar has to do with priesthood and acceptance before God, yet it cannot be separated from the blood of atonement (Ex. 30:10). In the normal order of the service of the tabernacle, the clouds of incense filled the holy place on a continual basis, representing the continual intercession of Christ for the believer. When we come to God in prayer, we are presented to Him in all the fragrance of the Person of Christ, and in all the efficacy of the Work of Christ. However, on the Day of Atonement, the golden censer seems to replace the function of the golden altar. 
  • The Second Veil. The veil separated the “holy place” from the “most holy place”. It was a thick curtain of rich colors that all speak of aspects of Christ’s character, and on the curtain with careful needlework were the cherubim, the executers of God’s judgment. The veil restricted access into the holiest of all. Notably, when Christ died, the veil of the temple was “rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Matt. 27:51). The veil speaks of Christ’s flesh (Heb. 10:20). If He had not gone to the cross, the way into the holiest would never have been made manifest. It was in the death of Christ, symbolized by the rending of the veil, that He has made a way of access for the believer into the presence of God (Heb. 10:19-22; Eph. 2:18), through His work on the cross, whereby the holy and righteous claims of God against sin have been answered.
  • The Holy of Holies. The holiest of all was the innermost chamber of the tabernacle, and it speaks of the immediate presence of God. The way into the holy place has been opened for us through the cross, and because Christ Himself is there to show us the way. We are free to boldly draw near into God’s holy presence, where we worship Him!
  • The Golden Censer. The censer seems to have been used specially in the work of atonement. On the day of atonement, coals were taken from the golden altar and put into a censer, and the incense was placed on the coals (Lev. 16:12-13). This censer was then taken within the veil, so the cloud of sweet incense would cover the mercy seat, and God would appear in that cloud (Lev. 16:2). The golden censer seems to replace the function of the golden altar in the inner sphere: within the holiest of all. This might represent the believer drawing near to God, not with petitions as in holy place, but for worship as in the holiest of all!
  • The Ark of the Covenant. The ark represents the Person of Christ as the means of God coming down to meet man. Like much of the other furniture of the tabernacle, the ark was made with shittim wood (Christ’s humanity) covered with fine gold (Christ’s deity). Within the ark were three things that speak of the inward character of Chris; what He was a man before God. First, “the tables of the covenant speak of inward determination of Christ to always do the will of God (Psa. 40:7-8). Second, the “the golden pot that had the manna” speaks of the moral perfection of Christ as a humble man here in this world, especially that which was only for the eye of God (“hidden manna”, Rev. 2:17). Third, the “the rod of Aaron that had sprouted” speaks of the priestly grace of Christ, whose heart is ever turned toward man for blessing, and which is the preserving power in our walk. These last two pertain especially to the wilderness, and are thus left out when the ark is placed in the temple (2 Chron. 5:10). On the top of the ark was the mercy-seat which represented the place where the claims of divine righteousness (gold) would be met by the blood of the sin offering. Once on the mercy-seat and seven times before it the blood of atonement would be sprinkled. The two cherubim with their wings outstretched were looking down on the mercy-seat, observing the transaction of the atoning-blood, no doubt speaking of the perfect acceptance of the Work of Christ before the throne of a holy God.
  1. Christ is looked at in this scripture as having passed, like the Jewish high priest on the day of atonement, through the court, the holy place, into the holy of holies (all of which are symbolical of the heavens), into the presence of God. – Dennett, E. A Simple Exposition of Exodus. Broom, 1889.