Meditation on Exodus 25
The Furnishings of the Tabernacle and the Holy Trinity
I was impressed as I was reading through Exodus chapter 25 this year that the first three furnishings for the wilderness tabernacle which God instructed Moses and the people to make were likely very symbolic of the three persons of the Trinity. Certainly the Ark of the Covenant was a focal point for the Presence of God. This was known to all the Jewish people. The God of Israel showed himself between the cherubim over the Ark (Numbers 7:89; Ezek. 9:3)). But that Holy and Awesome Presence was walled off by the curtain. The fact that the Ark symbolized the Presence of God was also brought home to me by reflecting that on the day of atonement. The High Priest took the blood of the sacrifices for atonement behind the curtain and placed it on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. That was the place where the nation sought mercy from God through its High Priest.
As I was reading this chapter this time it occurred to me that the other two furnishings named later were likely foreshadowing NT revelation about the other two persons of the Trinity, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The second furnishing named is the table for the consecrated bread. The Old Testament names it the Bread of the Presence (NIV). This table, on which bread was kept continually, speaks to me of Jesus, who described himself as the Bread of Life, and who is Emmanuel, God-with-us always.
The third furnishing was the lampstand with its seven branches. Decorations on it were of almond flowers with buds and blossoms. But the key observation was the symbolism of firelight constantly glowing in the Holy Place. I could not help but think of the sevenfold Spirit of God, as the book of Revelation describes Him.
“Before the throne were seven flaming torches, which are the sevenfold Spirit of God” (Rev 4:5 CJB).
Recall with me that at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended as if in “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). It is through the Spirit that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God spreads out. As Christians, we shine with a light not our own (Matt. 5:14; 2 Cor. 3:18). Today, for United Methodists, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is symbolized in our logo with a flame intertwined with the cross.
The placement of the furnishings is also symbolic
To add to the symbolism created by the use and nomenclature of the three pieces in the wilderness tabernacle, I noted their placement. The ark of the covenant was set off by itself in the room that was a perfect cube, the Holy of Holies. The Ark was physically separated from the people to help the people understand the holiness of God. The root idea of the Hebrew word for holy speaks of separation. Perhaps the cubic nature of the room pointed to God’s perfection.
In contrast, both the table for the Bread of the Presence and the seven-branched candlestick were in the Holy Place where the priests ministered daily. By way of application, the other two persons of the Trinity are not thought of as separate from humanity but as present to minister to us. I also observed in my reading that the altar of incense was also in the Holy Place. My mind quickly traveled to the message of Revelation, the passage where the prayers of the saints arise to God as a sweet-smelling savor like incense (Rev. 8:3, 4). When I was reading about the placement of the table of the Bread of the Presence and the seven-branched candlestick along with the altar of incense in the Holy Place, two teachings came to my mind.
The Furnishings of the Tabernacle teach us about prayer.
First, I saw a parallel with New Testament teachings about our prayers. Jesus and the Holy Spirit both help us in our prayers to God. So here in the Holy Place we find symbolism for our theology of prayer. The altar of incense with its sweet savor rising stands for the prayers of God’s people rising to the Father who is unseen. The Table with the Bread of the Presence speaks of the Son of God, the Bread of Life, who now intercedes for us and helps us in our prayers. As the bread on that table was constantly refreshed, God’s mercies to us through Christ are new every morning. Jesus intercedes for us even now (Hebrews 7:25). The candlestick with its eternal flame reminds us of the Holy Spirit who helps us as we pray (Romans 8:26). So we have in the temple a foreshadowing of what God would do in sending his Son and his Holy Spirit to help the church be the people of God in prayer.
The Tabernacle teaches us about the church
The second teaching that came to mind relates to the church. All this symbolism took place in the house of God, which for them was the tabernacle in the wilderness. How does this relate to us today? The OT Holy Place helps us see our role in worship and understand the theology of who we are and how we can function in our roles in the church today. Our house of God is our local church which is not just a building but a group of believers. Is there a lesson to be learned by comparing this OT Holy Place to our church today? I think so. Every Christian church today is also a Holy Place with comparable functions. Jesus’ Presence is now represented in the Bread of the Sacrament. In most churches, it is not placed continually as it was in the OT but the Bread of the Sacrament is a part of almost all Christian church liturgies regularly. Jesus is also Present in the church as the Word both spoken and written. The Word nourishes the Church. The Holy Spirit is present in every believer with the same light and flame that God sent at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit makes his sanctuary in our lives and spreads the light of the knowledge of God through us to others. The Spirit of God fills the house of God as believers gather. Every House of God is to be a House of Prayer (Mark 11:17) where the prayers and the praises of believers ascend to God as incense. For the NT teaches that all Christians are a “royal priesthood” (2 Peter 2:9) able to minister in the ways the OT priests did in the Holy Place, by lifting up our own prayers and those of others to God. From the church, prayers arise to God for our needs, the needs of others, and the work of the kingdom.