Teaching series from Hebrews

The Tabernacle: Salvation in Symbols

Hebrews 8:4-5; 9:1-12

Teaching t10578


Repeat the main theme/importance of Hebrews: explains the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Old Testament foreshadows/predicts the salvation that God would bring through his Messiah; the New Testament announces/explains how Jesus has accomplished this salvation.  (“TYPE” TIMELINE EXAMPLES: rest; Melchizedek???)

So there is both continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament (same God; same salvation needed; same overall plan of salvation), and discontinuity (different stages of God’s & different ways of relating to God).

Nowhere is this relationship better illustrated than in the way Israel worshipped God and the way Christians can worship God.  God gave Old Testament Israel a highly detailed way of worshipping him that centered around the tabernacle (tent, later made permanent in Temple).  In Heb.8,9, the author tells us that this tabernacle worship system taught Israel about salvation in a highly symbolic way.  (We will cover portions of these two chapters.)

Read 8:4b,5.  This is why God was so anal about the tabernacle’s construction.  He disallowed innovation or creative renovation.  Everything had to made exactly as commanded, because it was a copy/shadow of something very real—namely, the way God is, the problem God has with us, and the way God solves our problem.  Let’s take a look at the main elements of the tabernacle and see how they taught this...

The tabernacle’s main symbols

Read 9:1-7.  The author could describe this briefly because his Jewish audience was super-familiar with it.  We need a little more help.  Let me summarize the main symbolism of the tabernacle:

First of all, the tabernacle was always to be set up in the midst of Israel’s campsite.  This symbolized God’s desire to dwell among his people.  God does not desire to be aloof or distant—he desires to be accessible to us.  In fact, he desires to dwell inside us both individually and corporately.  But there is a problem, and the tabernacle also symbolized this problem...

Any Israelite could go into the outer court of the tabernacle as long as they were ritually clean (more later), but there were restrictions and barriers that prevented most people from getting any closer to God.  Only the Levitical priests could go into the Holy Place.  And no one (with one exception that we’ll learn about soon) could go into God’s dwelling-place, the Holy of Holies.  A thick veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies—like God was saying: “Yes, I desire to have you in my presence—but you are not allowed the way you are.  There is a serious problem that separates us, and until that problem is resolved there can be no real closeness between us.”  That problem was explained (symbolically) by what was inside the Holy of Holies...

Their only piece of furniture in the HOH was a wooden box called the “ark of the covenant.”  Every article in this box was highly symbolic:

Inside the box were three things that symbolized the problem God had with the Israelites.  There was a jar of manna.  This was the food that God supernaturally provided for the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness.  This was the same food that the Israelites complained about—so it symbolized their ungrateful rejection of God’s provision.  There was also Aaron’s walking stick.  This stick represented God’s leadership through Moses and Aaron.  Over and over again the Israelites rebelled against their leadership—so that God had to vindicate that Moses and Aaron were his chosen leaders by supernaturally causing his staff to bud.  So this staff symbolized their rebellion against God’s leadership.  Finally, there were the 10 Commandments—the two stone tablets that summarized God’s law.  Even as Moses brought these tablets down from Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were having an idolatrous orgy.  Moses furiously threw them down and smashed them—so God made another copy and told him to put them in the ark.  They symbolized their disobedience to God’s law.  This is not a pretty picture—and God has the same problems with us!  What do we find in the meeting room with God?  A record of why we deserve to be condemned by him!

On top of the ark stood two statues of cherubim—angelic beings who are associated with banishment from God’s presence (Gen.3:24).  The cherubim’s faces were directed downward, into the contents of the ark.  It’s like they are saying: “Look at what these people have done!  God definitely has a problem with these people.  God has to judge all this!”  And that’s the point.  Yes, God loves us.  Yes, God desires to have personal closeness with us.  But he can’t—because we have violated his righteous character in many ways—and the penalty for this is death.

If this was all there was in the Holy of Holies, this would be a very depressing message. But there was something else—something called the “mercy seat.”  It was the lid over top of the ark—and what happened on this lid symbolized God’s solution to our problem with him.  Because God is holy, God must judge our sin with death.  But because God is loving, he provided a way to judge our sin without judging us.  He provided a substitute who was killed in our place. Once a year, the High Priest selected a goat without any physical defect.  After symbolically transferring the nation’s guilt for that year on to the goat by laying his hands on the goat’s head, the goat was slain and its blood (demonstrating his death) was carried in by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies and poured out onto the mercy seat.  The blood covered the lid so that the cherubim now “see” the death rather than the sins.  The sins have been covered by the substitute’s death.  After pouring out this blood, the High Priest came back out and laid his hands on another defect-free goat.  Then he sent the goat off into the wilderness.  Symbolically, then, God’s judgment for their sins was “sent off” because of the death of the first goat. 

This ritual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, then, was a beautiful picture of God’s plan of forgiveness.  But it was never more than a temporary and defective picture—it never actually solved the problem of our separation from God.  This is what the author emphasizes in 9:8-10 (read).

The high priests were sinful people just like us, not sinless mediators (9:7).

They only went into a man-made tent, not into the actual heavenly presence of God.

The sacrifices they offered were only animals, not human.  (In fact, the Old Testament strictly forbade human sacrifice.  It demanded human death for human guilt, but prohibited sinful human sacrifices.)

The tabernacle system only cleansed people ceremonially/symbolically (re-qualified them to come into the outer court), it didn’t actually forgive people.  The proof of this is two-fold: the sacrifices had to be repeated every year, and even then the worshippers couldn’t go into God’s presence.  As 9:10 says, it only applied until God brought the real solution...

Fulfillment in Jesus

Read 9:11,12.  Here is some really good news!  Jesus came as the fulfillment of the Old Testament tabernacle system:

He was the real high priest—from a superior priestly order (2 WEEKS AGO), and a sinless High Priest who is therefore qualified to fix our sin problems with God because he doesn’t have any of his own sin problems.

He went into the real tabernacle—the actual presence of God—with his solution.

He voluntarily offered his own blood—his own perfect and sinless life—to pay for our sins.

Therefore, he has accomplished a permanent solution for our guilt before God—he has died “once for all” and obtained an “eternal redemption.”  Read 9:13,14.  The most that the Old Testament sacrifices could grant was ritual cleansing—the right to go into the outer court.  But Jesus’ sacrifice actually removes our guilt and cleanses our conscience (experience God’s forgiveness) so that we can serve (“worship”) God and enjoy his personal presence!

This is why Jesus, just before he died on the cross, cried out “It is finished” (Matt.27:50; Jn.19:30).  What was finished?  All of the Old Testament sacrifices and the whole tabernacle system were finished, because what they symbolized was now accomplished by his death!  And this is why the moment Jesus died, the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was torn in two (Matt.27:51).  The separation between us and God that had stood so long because our sins was now bridged by Jesus death.  The way into God’s presence was open for everyone—as long as we come through what Jesus did for us.

The only condition is that you must humbly ask God to apply Jesus’ sacrifice to you.  You have to admit that your sins separate you from God and make you worthy of his judgment.  You have to agree that neither your good works nor any religious observance can take away this guilt.  You have to rely only on Jesus’ death to pay for all of your sins.  And then thank him for this amazing and undeserved gift.

Ritualistic worship of God is now obsolete!

The implications that flow from Jesus’ death are huge.  It changes the whole way we relate to God.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at many of these changes, but I want to end this morning by showing you one big change—ritualistic worship of God is now obsolete!

That’s what is implied by the Temple veil being torn when Jesus died.

That’s also what the author of Hebrews says—it couldn’t be any plainer.  We already heard him say this in 7:18,19 (read).  He also says this in 8:13 (read).  When he wrote this, the Temple was still in operation—but he said it was obsolete.  And he said (prophetically) it was about to disappear.  This happened about ten years later when the Romans destroyed the Temple.  Now that the real High Priest has entered the real Tabernacle to offer the real Sacrifice, there are to be no more priests, no more holy buildings, and no more ritual sacrifices/services.  Christianity is about a personal love relationship with God, not about ritualistic worship!

You can’t miss this shift if you just read and compare the Old Testament to the New Testament. 

In the Old Testament, God prescribes hundreds of rituals, and he gives detailed instructions on how to observe these rituals (because of their symbolic/prophetic significance).  But when you go past Jesus’ death, this changes dramatically.  Now instead of hundreds of prescribed rituals, there are only two—and one of them is only done once!  And there are virtually no instructions on how to observe these two rituals (because they celebrate what has already been done).  This contrast is because the Old Testament worship system was a liturgy of ritual observances—but the New Testament worship is a lifestyle of love relationships with God and others (as we’ll see in the coming weeks...)