Bible Study: The Tabernacle and Ritual Sacrifice

[This post is one of the sections from our recently published Bible study guide available for free download]

In the Holy Scriptures we find very little description of material culture. The artistic wonders of Egypt and Greece have fascinated the sensual mind of man for centuries, but the Bible passes them over in almost complete silence. When we do find detailed visual descriptions in the Bible, the main focus is on the tabernacle, the temple of Solomon, or prophetic visions. These detailed descriptions are of those things that raise our minds above the fallen world and cause us to contemplate divine and heavenly things.

God gives Moses very detailed instructions for how the tabernacle (a kind of tent) is to be built. The purpose of the tabernacle is to provide a localized, physical sanctuary at which the Israelites can make their sacrifices to God and at which God can manifest himself specially to his chosen people.

God is of course present throughout his creation and he cannot be contained in any physical space. Nevertheless, for the accommodation of man’s limited understanding, God ordains that certain physical objects arranged in certain ways can lead his people to have a clearer relationship with him. The description of the tabernacle begins with the raw materials that are to be used in its construction.

“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering. And this is the offering which ye shall take of them; gold, and silver, and brass, and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, and rams’ skins dyed red, and badgers’ skins, and shittim wood, oil for the light, spices for anointing oil, and for sweet incense, Onyx stones, and stones to be set in the ephod, and in the breastplate. And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it.” (Exodus 25:1-9)

As we see in this passage God commands that the Israelites use the rarest metals and stones in the construction of the tabernacle. Through incense, dyed cloth and the singing of spiritual songs, we can see that the Old Testament worship engages all of the senses.

After assembling the raw materials, the Israelites are to fashion some of these materials into the likeness of cherubims and of plants.

“And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.” (Exodus 25:18-20)

“And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side: Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick.” (Exodus 25:31-33)

“Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them.” (Exodus 26:1)

The tabernacle was a three-fold creation of God. God provides the raw materials, the precious gems, the gold, the linen, the animal skins, the dyes and the spices; he also created the cherubims and the plants that are to be imitated by the Israelite artists; and finally he gives Moses exact instructions on how to arrange the materials. In like manner God manifests his wisdom and power to us through his entire creation and through the special revelation of the Bible.

Rather than miraculously creating the tabernacle directly, God selected artists and filled them with his Spirit. This is quite similar to how God directed the original writing of the Scriptures.

“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee.” (Exodus 31:1-6)

In these passages we find direct commandments from God on how to arrange the elements that he has created in order to produce a certain aesthetic effect and a certain symbolic statement. God commands the Israelites to use the finest, rarest materials on earth to point to the transcendent nature of the heavenly worship; the images of heavenly beings surrounding the tabernacle and the mercy seat reveal the reverence that God is to receive on his throne; the sweet smelling incense points both to the prayers of the faithful ascending to God and to the sweet presence of God in the house of worship.

While under the New Covenant we are certainly not commanded to reproduce the tabernacle, the description of the tabernacle still provides insight into how we are to view and interact with the natural world. God’s natural creation remains the fundamental model of beauty that human artists look to when producing their own works, and the Bible tells us that “the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

The books of Moses lay out an elaborate system of sacrifice and ritual in meticulous detail. We already had occasion to discuss the sacrifice at the first Passover and noted that the blood there offered to ward off God’s wrath must be understood as pointing towards Christ. The same is true of all Old Testament sacrifices.

While God did establish a system of animal sacrifice in order to teach men about His justice and holiness, this does not mean that the Old Testament sacrifices are a type of bribe by which God’s wrath can be automatically averted. The divinity is not an impersonal mechanism that can be manipulated by certain rites or ceremonies, as many pagans and occultists have always believed. The following passage from Isaiah makes it clear that mere outward obedience to religious ordinances count for nothing unless they are done with a clean heart.

“Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:10-17)

In this passage God goes so far as to identify the hypocrites of Israel with Sodom and Gomorrah. The offense of hypocrisy and a false, outward profession of religion cannot be overstated. Many Christians throughout the centuries have fallen into this same trap. They have attended the outward ordinances of divine worship but their hearts have remained cold and unconverted.

The New Covenant of Christ was sealed by the blood of our savior at Calvary. In similar manner Moses seals the Old Covenant made at Sinai with the blood of sacrificial victims.

“And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.” (Exodus 24:3-8)

The Old Covenant is here described largely in terms of works. When entering into the covenant, the Israelites declared that they would do everything that the LORD commanded. In this passage the Israelites seem to understand the covenant largely in terms of what they will be required to do rather than what God will do for them. The New Covenant, however, is a covenant of grace, not of works, and is based on what God has done for us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

However, we must be careful when contrasting the Old and New Covenants. There is a common misconception that the law of the Old Covenant focused on mere outward behavior, while the Gospel focuses on our inner state. The Pharisees in the 1st century AD had certainly perverted the law of Moses by focusing excessively on outward behavior, but God’s intention was always to reform the heart of fallen man. This can be seen in the previously visited passage from Isaiah, as well as from the following passage from Deuteronomy:

“And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good? Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’s thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is. Only the LORD had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name. He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-21)

The outer circumcision of the flesh was an important sign of God’s Covenant with the children of Abraham, but the circumcision of the heart was always more important. We must sanctify our hearts, our innermost emotional and moral being. We must give our hearts away to God as an offering. We must die to our own selfish desires and live to God. This passage also brings out the fact that the Old Covenant certainly was of grace, even though it was articulated largely in works that man must do for God.

The Israelites living under the Old Covenant were just as much saved by grace through faith as the Christians living under the New Covenant. Hundreds of years before Moses, the Gospel was preached to Abraham (Galatians 3:8) when God promised that the salvation would come through faith in Christ, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). It was faith in this original Abrahamic promise that justified the ancient Israelites. The Mosaic law was given to display more fully God’s will for mankind and to show how far sinful man is from living a truly righteous life (Romans 7, Galatians 3:24). The law was not given to provide man a way of earning his own salvation.

The Old Testament sacrificial system is centered around the Aaronic priesthood and the tabernacle (later the temple). Sacrifice and worship are meant to be corporate and public.

“And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.” (Leviticus 1:1-9)

The sacrificial victims offered to the LORD are to be “without blemish.” In making a sacrifice the Israelites acknowledge their dependence on God for all of the blessings of the earth and they offer back to God the best of what God has given to them.

As mentioned above while discussing the institution of the Passover, all of the Old Testament ritual pointed to Christ and His work upon the cross. This point is made very clear in Hebrews 9. In this chapter from the New Testament epistle we are told that Christ’s blood is the final atonement for all sin, and that it is through Christ that we have access to the holy of holies:

“Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second 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 this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet 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; Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you. Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” (Hebrews 9)

While we can marvel at the intricate wonders of the Old Testament ceremonial, we must never forget that those who have died to sin and are alive in Christ have a better covenant. God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves: forever put away the guilt of sin through the suffering and death of the sinless one. While the tabernacle and the Mosaic rituals were of profound beauty and modeled after heavenly things, we can confidently expect to enjoy the true substance of heaven for all eternity in the company of our Savior.

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