“Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:1-5).
Hebrews here says that the first covenant had “ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary.” The earthly sanctuary, its furnishings, and the worship service were rich in symbolism, and it was a constant reminder that kept before the eyes of the people the coming Messiah and the need for redemption. Each furnishing of the Tabernacle held special significance. Each one, in its own way, pointed the people away from themselves and toward God, Whose grace alone could save them. These furnishings were, in essence, a proclamation of Law and Gospel.
The lampstand symbolized light from God, fulfilled in Jesus. “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). The table was a symbol of our complete reliance on God’s mercy and grace to provide all we need for body and soul. It also held the showbread, twelve loaves of bread representing the twelve tribes. These furnishings were in the first part, “which is called the sanctuary.” The sanctuary was separated from the “Holiest of All” by a veil or curtain. That veil symbolized that sinful man cannot come into the presence of Holy God.
The “Holiest of All” was off limits to everyone except the High Priest, and even he could enter it only one day a year. He would go behind the veil into the Holiest of All on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for his own sins and those of the people. He would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed animal on the Mercy Seat, thus pointing ahead to Jesus’ blood which would be shed on Calvary. “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). The high priest carried the golden censer—the incense burning in it symbolizing the prayers of the people coming before God—with him on the Day of Atonement. The Ark of the Covenant was a symbol of God’s Law. It was made of wood and was overlaid on all sides with gold. The Ark was also the throne of God in the Holiest of All, where His glory rested on the Mercy Seat, a symbol of His grace and forgiveness. The sacrificed blood brought by the High Priest was sprinkled on the Ark to “cover the sins of the people.” This symbolism was fulfilled in Jesus, Who shed His blood as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The earthly sanctuary and all it represented and taught were fulfilled in our Savior Jesus, Who was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons”(Galatians 4:4).
Jay Hartmann is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Coloma, Michigan.