#WCSK Episode 2.2a: The Tabernacle


The tabernacle is the single subject that God devoted the most attention to in the entire Bible. So, the eternal God of the universe, the King of Kings and the Alpha and the Omega decided of all things He could speak about, He would spend the most time on the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is discussed in Exodus chapters 25–40 and then again in Hebrews chapters 9–13.

Studying the tabernacle is so critically important because it describes how we, as a sinful people, can approach a Holy God. If you want to get closer to God and want to know how to approach Him, then you have to study the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle is full of symbolism and typology and is a representation of Jesus. If you want to know more about Jesus or to be a better imitator of Him, then you have to study the tabernacle.

The Tabernacle was a replica of something perfect in Heaven.[1] It is a picture, or a type,[2] of Jesus, at the intersection of the unseen and the seen, at the intersection of God and humanity. The Tabernacle likely is the most intricate and detailed portrait of the Son of God (Christ) in the entire Old Testament and effectively illustrates God’s entire plan of salvation. The Tabernacle was always meant to point to something better.[3] The earthly Tabernacle consisted of members of the Levitical Priesthood. This order could only offer that which had been given and was limited to a natural lifespan. It was secondary and temporary. The new priesthood of Melchizedek[4] points to Jesus and is primary and permanent.

In essence, God wanted to dwell among His people (the Israelites); He wanted to fellowship with them and to communicate with them. Yet, a holy, just, and righteous God can’t just drop in and meet face to face with a sinful people—they had to make atonement for their sins and therefore be cleansed of their iniquity before being reconciled to a sinless God. In order for this to happen, the building had exact specifications set by The Lord. In Exodus 25:8 God says, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (italics mine). God’s motivation is clear: He wanted to be with His people and He wanted to have a relationship with them.

The Tabernacle was in the center of the Israelite camp. It was the place where God literally descended from Heaven in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night.[5] Not only was the Tabernacle a place where people met God, but it was the only place where a human being could approach God. And the only way to approach was by blood sacrifice: priests conducted animal sacrifices in order to temporarily atone for the sins of the people of Israel. The building itself was in operation for approximately 400 years from the time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (1400–1500 BC) until the time that Solomon built the Temple (the fixed sanctuary) in Jerusalem.

The Tabernacle was a rectangular enclosure whose perimeter was decorated with curtains that hung on poles. The entire structure was 145 feet long, 72 feet wide and 7 feet high.[6] The Israelites moved about in the wilderness for 40 years, so whenever they moved to a new location, the Tabernacle was dismantled by the Levites (the priests) and then reconstructed at the destination.[7] While the Tabernacle was in one place, the twelve tribes of Israel camped around it in a defined order,[8] and the Levites were always in the immediate vicinity.[9]

In order to erect the tabernacle—a place suitable to receive God’s presence and be in His presence—the people had to give up things of tremendous earthly value. Hence, M. R. DeHaan writes:

“The most costly building, for its size, ever erected, was the tabernacle in the wilderness. Though only forty-five feet long, and fifteen feet wide, and having only two rooms, one the size of an ordinary living room, and the other the size of a bedroom, its cost is estimated to have exceeded two million dollars.”[10]

In fact, all the luxurious furnishings of the Tabernacle were provided by the Israelites.[11]

Back then, the Israelites communed with God through the Tabernacle. Now, we commune with God through Jesus. Then, God dwelt in the Tabernacle. Today, believers are God’s dwelling place,[12] His holy presence is among us,[13] those who believe God are part of a priesthood,[14] and the Tabernacle reveals to us an exact prescription of worship given by God to us.[15]

The Tabernacle was a place where God dwelled among His people, but Jesus is God incarnate who dwelled among us.[16] In fact, John 1:14 speaks of Jesus and says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (italics mine). The Greek word for dwelt is skenoo, which means to tent, encamp, reside or “tabernacle.”

The earthly Tabernacle is important because it tells us about an imperfect high priest who had to offer annual blood sacrifices for the entire nation of Israel in the Most Holy Place. This sacrifice was temporary and only applied to the Israelites. Jesus is our perfect High Priest, was the sinless and eternal sacrifice for all, and the One Who “entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation,”[17] but the Tabernacle in Heaven.[18]

The Tabernacle in the wilderness

The Tabernacle in the Wilderness

The Tabernacle Layout Graphic

The preceding pictures should help you to visualize the overall structure and layout of the Tabernacle.

An Overview

God, being a Trinitarian God, dwelled in a structure that consisted of three compartments: the outer court, the holy place, and the Holy of Holies. Similarly, all human beings have three “compartments” to their being that all reside in a unified person: body, soul and spirit. As we shall learn, the spirit (Holy of Holies) is the deepest, innermost room hidden from plain view where communion with God takes place. The soul (holy place) is where worship and fellowship happens. The body (outer court) is the outermost and therefore the most highly visible area where all the sacrifices take place.[19] In the idealized life of a believer, the regenerated spirit that spends time with God “calls all the shots” and orders the activities of the soul and the body. Therefore, for example, one sacrifices fleshly things in order to enter into the holy place, worship God, and then move into the Holy of Holies to intimately commune with The Lord.

In the details that follow, for the most part I have purposely left out measurements. Certainly, the numerical values have significance, but my goal is to convey the practical and theological peculiarities of one’s path through the Tabernacle as opposed to getting into the minutiae of mathematics. When I refer to the Tabernacle (capital T), I am referring to the complex as a complete whole. When I speak of the tabernacle or the tabernacle proper (lowercase t), I am referring to the tent that contains the holy place and the Holy of Holies. The following details what the typical journey through the Tabernacle would look like.

First a person would enter from the East through the gate[20] into the outer court. The reason a person would enter is that they had committed a sin and now had to present an animal to be sacrificed. (And for all those scrupulous Bible students, one may have also come to give a grain or peace offering). A fence[21] separated the Tabernacle complex from the rest of the Israelite camp because only priests from the tribe of Levi were allowed to touch the Tabernacle. One would then come to meet the bronze altar[22] where God required an animal sacrifice to temporarily “cover” or atone for a person’s sin. God could have required the sinner’s blood (i.e., death) but He allowed an innocent substitute in the form of an animal to temporarily take away sin so that the person could be reconciled back to God. In fact, the person offering the animal would put his hand on the head of the creature during the sacrifice so that the sin would be symbolically transferred to it. God had specific requirements for what determined a suitable sacrifice since the animal would be an undeserving recipient of a deserved punishment. More so, the sacrifices people had to make tended to be valuable (e.g., bulls, goats, and sheep) in order to reveal to the people that God will provide.[23] As far as the sacrifices went, sin offerings atoned for sins against God.[24] Guilt offerings atoned for sins against others.[25] Burnt offerings represented total surrender to God.[26] Since the sacrifices were temporary, each new sin required a new sacrifice. Hence, the Tabernacle was a busy, non-stop operation with constant sacrifices all the time due to the sheer volume of Israelites. That is, about 600,000 men left Egypt (excluding women and children).[27] This figure represents the number of men at the beginning of the 40-year wilderness journey and excludes all the children born during that time. With so much sin for which to atone, blood was a prominent, constant presence. This helps explain why there were no seats and thus no rest in the Tabernacle.

Because of the eternal, perfect sacrifice of Jesus, once His work was completed forever, there was no longer a need to make any more sacrifices, and thus, He sat down at the right hand of God, symbolizing the completion of His work.[28]

After the sacrifice at the bronze altar, from this point onward, each step closer to God involved only the priests. In other words, the priests served as mediators between the people and God. Next, at the bronze laver,[29] the priest would wash himself after having made a blood sacrifice on behalf of the people. This purified him and allowed him to enter into the tabernacle proper by passing through the curtains at the entrance into the holy place. Here, the only source of light was the golden lamsptand,[30] made from one piece of gold. The lampstand had seven branches with seven candles. On the table of shewbread[31] were twelve loaves of bread representing the twelve tribes of Israel and the promises between a gracious God and His people. Priests ate this bread and replaced it weekly. The high priest burned incense at the altar of incense[32] every morning and evening. The bread represented fellowship and identification with a community, and the incense represented worship and prayer as a sweet aroma that rose up to God. The altar of incense stood in front of the veil[33] that separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies.[34] Hence, the veil is what separated God and man. Inside the Holy of Holies was the central focus of the Tabernacle: the Ark of the Covenant.[35] God spoke to the high priest above the Mercy Seat,[36] which covered the Ark. On the Day of Atonement, the priest would have sprinkled blood on the Mercy Seat to atone for the sins of all the people. Resultantly, the relationship between God and man was restored, allowing for communication. The Ark was made of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold. In it was contained God’s Law (10 Commandments on the tablets of stone), Aaron’s rod, and a jar of manna.

The Outer Court

The outer court was surrounded by a fence that was draped in white linen. The tent (Holy of Holies plus the holy place) measured approximately 15 feet tall, 15 feet wide, and 45 feet long. The outer court had no roof, nor did it have any formal flooring other than the earth beneath it. The only way into the outer court was by way of the 30-foot wide gate. This was the only way to get to the Tabernacle, and this gate always faced East.

The foundation.[37] Because the Tabernacle was portable and existed in the wilderness, it needed a sturdy foundation. God prescribed that the compound be built upon a foundation of pure silver sockets (for the tabernacle proper) and pure bronze sockets (for the fence). All of the precious metal required for the Tabernacle was carried out of Egypt by the Israelites. Silver itself speaks of redemption and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Therefore, the tabernacle rests upon the foundation of atonement. This has to be the case because “all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,”[38] “you have been bought with a price,”[39] and “you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.”[40]

In fact, God even used the words “ransom” and “atonement” in reference to the silver procured from a tax, and thus to be used in the tabernacle, from all adult males over the age of twenty.[41] Because every male had to bring his own half shekel as a part of this tax, this points to the actuality that each person has to be responsible for his or her own salvation. My salvation is independent of others, and the price paid by another human being does not absolve me of my own responsibility. Consequently, a righteous parent does not save a sinful child, and a righteous spouse does not redeem their mate.

The fence.[42] This structure surrounded the outer court and the white linen was suspended on sixty pillars of brass, each resting in a socket of brass. The brass represented God’s divine judgment,[43] and the white linen represent the perfect holiness and righteousness[44] of God. As a unit, the fence represented the Law, the thing that separated God from humankind. The Law, something visible, simultaneously revealed the sinner’s sin and God’s pristine purity. The fence thus reminded the people that because of their sin, revealed by the Law, they are separated from the Holy God.[45] It naturally follows that the Law saves no one;[46] it only condemns. The fence was further secured in place by taught ropes that went over the fence and were secured into place with pins in the ground.

The Tabernacle represents Jesus, therefore if you are in the Tabernacle, you are in Christ. If you are outside of the Tabernacle, you do not know Christ, and live a sinful, unrepentant life. Hence, you can peek over the tall, white linen fence and be able to see only the ordinary roof of the interior tent, covered in porpoise skins. As we shall see, there is a tremendous amount of luxurious beauty in the tent that can only be seen when you are on in the inside. Therefore, a non-believer, standing outside, may see Jesus as a “good guy” and a moral and upright person, but they don’t see God or the Messiah. They have not entered into the outer court and the tent to behold the majesty hidden from plain sight. They have no idea what’s going on in the Tabernacle because their sight is blocked. This person is not in Christ because they have not entered through and door and passed through the altar of sacrifice (the Cross). If someone is in Christ, as Paul says, “he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”[47]

The atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is what allows the Holy Spirit to regenerate a person so that they are born again and see what was before visible but not seen. In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (italics mine). Regeneration, or being born again, is what opens a person’s eyes so that they can finally see God in their midst and respond to the call to walk through the door: Jesus.[48] An unregenerate person is totally incapable of seeing the beauty of Jesus,[49] thinks of God as something foolish,[50] and has a mind that is blinded.[51]

The door.[52] A hanging curtain draped over the entrance from the outside into the outer court and was composed of four colors: purple (royalty), scarlet (blood), blue (heaven), and white (righteousness). Since Jesus is the door, the four colors of the curtain speak of and about Christ: His kingship, sacrifice, deity, and perfection. Jesus is also the only entrance point between a sinful, unrepentant life and salvation. (No one can get in by a back door or a hidden “secret” passageway. The white linen fence of the Tabernacle excludes all those who refuse to enter by the one and only door). So before you stepped through the door, you saw the curtain at the entry gate that speaks of Jesus. The four colors testify to specific aspects of Christ, and it is no coincidence that the four Synoptic Gospels each testify to Jesus and the gospel. Consequently, just as the curtain introduced you to four different aspects of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four different ways that introduce a non-believer to Christ. For this reason, the story of Jesus’s Incarnation, life, death and resurrection serve as a person’s introduction to the One God sent to reconcile humanity back to Himself.

Matthew spoke to a Jewish audience and proclaimed Jesus to be the King of Israel.[53] Mark spoke to a Roman audience and spoke of the things that Jesus did, notably as one who was a suffering servant.[54] The Romans were also the ones who crucified Christ. Luke, a physician, wrote to a Gentile audience using very technical, precise, and untainted Greek. For obvious reasons, he had an emphasis on healing, and he used his gospel to “purify” polluted reports about Jesus, to strengthen the faith of believers, and to answer the attacks of non-believers. Luke’s gospel also stresses the teachings of Jesus that help people understand the way of salvation from sin to righteousness. John wrote about the personable and heavenly character of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.[55] Notice as well how wide the door to the outer court was: 30 feet. This was huge, and therefore whomsoever wanted to come was free to do so. In Christ, no one is excluded.[56]

The door leads directly to the altar of sacrifice, the Cross. John 10:9 says, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. John 14:6 says, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.’”

The Bronze Altar (Step #1).[57] This is the first piece of furniture (out of a total of seven, the number of completeness) that a person passing into the outer court from the East would encounter. The altar was also the largest piece of furniture in the Tabernacle. For believers, those who are repentant, we begin our path to approaching God by first coming through the door by faith, through Jesus, by the altar of sacrifice that eternally cleanses us from defilement due to sin. Everyone on the outside is burdened by sin and thus cannot approach God. No person can do anything based on his or her own worth in order to approach God.[58] “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”[59]

This altar is a shadow of the Cross. Until someone stops here and accepts the atoning blood sacrifice of Jesus, no one can go any further. Therefore, this is the first barrier between God and humankind. With the Cross, one may proceed. Notice also that human hands made the bronze altar just as human hands made the Cross. It was only by the permissive will of God that Christ was allowed to be crucified.[60] The bronze altar, just like the Cross, were all patterned according to God’s divine plan. Also, because the altar was heavy, it had to be carried on two wooden poles overlaid with bronze. If only one pole was used, the altar would be unbalanced and thus topple over. Two poles—the death and resurrection of Jesus—is what gives balance to the gospel.[61] One taken without the other produces a result that is asymmetrical and senseless.

This was the only place anyone was permitted to make a sacrifice in the entire Tabernacle and in the entire Israelite camp. Leviticus 17:3-4 says, “Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among his people.” Therefore, the only way to approach God is by the altar that He prescribed. The modern corollary is that no one can find favor with God through their own individual efforts, works, merit, morality, or “goodness.” Anyone who thinks they can make a sacrifice out of the bounds of what God has already commanded cannot come close to God and is destined to one certain fate: death. Jesus is the only way.[62]

The altar was in the shape of a square measuring 7.5 feet on each side. It was built from wood overlaid with brass. The wood represents Christ’s humanity and the brass God’s judgment. The fire that burned continually[63] on the altar speaks to the wrath of God. The intense heat of the fire did not destroy the altar, as Jesus would eventually say in regard to His life in John 10:18 “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” Keep in mind also that the fire on the altar was not kindled by human beings—it came down directly from Heaven as an act of God only: “Then fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.”[64] Again, the point is that the pattern of the Tabernacle, and thus the plan for our salvation, comes exclusively from God.

At the altar, the old nature is crucified as one enters into a new relationship with Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”[65]

The Laver (Step #2).[66] This was a bronze washbasin attached to a pedestal and base. It contained water in which the priests washed their hands and feet[67] continuously. Hands speak of service and feet of conduct. The laver was made from the mirrors (polished brass) of the people, particularly the mirrors of the women of Israel. Resultantly, what was used in the name of vanity was now used in the process of introspection in submission to God. After sacrificing animals and walking on the “floor” of the outer court (the earth) the priests continuously became dirty. This points to the fact that while we are in the Tabernacle and in Christ we are still in the world and exposed to the defilement of the world. The difference, of course, is how we respond to it. We seek to become clean from defilement and wash in the water. The world sees no disadvantage in mucking around in the dirt.

Thus, the water in the laver continuously allowed the priests to be cleansed. The laver symbolizes the Word of God as the Word is the mirror of God.[68] Hence, while the priests were washing in the symbolic Word, they had to look at themselves in the washbasin and reflect on what they were doing. The blood (at the altar) was the first cleansing agent and points to the once-and-for-all[69] justification[70] of the sinner through Christ. The water is the second cleansing agent and points to the sanctifying power of the Word of God. Sanctification means becoming holy. The answer to the question “How do I become holy?” therefore is very simple: separation from the world and immersing yourself in The Word, God’s commandments, ethics, and prescriptions for life. Psalm 119:9-11 says:

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.”

Of note, the Bible gives no instructions as to how big the laver should be. There is thus no limit to the sanctifying power of the Word. Presumably, in a given day, priests must have stopped at the laver hundreds of times, over and over again.

Ephesians 5:25-27 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.”

I John 5:6 says, “This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.” John 15:3 says, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” And John 17:17 says, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”

On the cross (altar), Jesus shed His blood to redeem us so that now the Word may cleanse us and make us holy. The blood paid the penalty for sin and the water removes the defilement of sins from those who are born again. God’s Word causes earnest disciples to take good, hard looks at themselves and reflect on their Christian walk. Consequently, once people are saved and have separated[71] themselves from the world by sanctification, they may then proceed into the tabernacle proper.

Join us next week for Part II of The Tabernacle.

Drs. C. H. S. and C. H. E. Sadaphal


For Further Study

DeHann, M. R., The Tabernacle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1955).

Rose Publishing, Rose Guide to the Tabernacle with Clear Plastic Overlays and Reproducible Charts (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2008).

[1] Hebrews 8:4-5

[2] Hebrews 8:8-9

[3] Hebrews 9:11-14

[4] Genesis 14:18

[5] Exodus 40:38

[6] Paul Achtemeier, ed. et al., HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (SanFranciso: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 1087.

[7] Numbers 1:51

[8] Numbers 2:1-31

[9] Numbers 1:52-53

[10] DeHann, M.R., The Tabernacle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1955), 34.

[11] Exodus 25:1-9

[12] I Corinthians 6:19

[13] Exodus 40:34-38

[14] I Peter 2:5, 9

[15] Hebrews 10:19-25

[16] Exodus 25; Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 1:22-23; John 1:14; Hebrews 10:1

[17] Hebrews 9:11

[18] Exodus 28:1; 29:9; 30:10; Leviticus 16:30; Romans 3:21-26; 5:8-10; Hebrews 4:14-15; 8:1-3; 10:10-12.

[19] Romans 12:1

[20] Exodus 27:10-16; 38:14-19; John 10:9

[21] Exodus 27:9-18; 38:9-20; 40:33

[22] Exodus 27:1-8; 40:6, 10, 29; Leviticus 1

[23] c.f. Job 1:21

[24] Leviticus 4-6; Numbers 15:1-2

[25] Leviticus 4-6; Numbers 15:1-2

[26] Leviticus 2

[27] Exodus 12:37

[28] Hebrews 10:1-4, 11-14

[29] Exodus 27:1-8; 40:6, 10, 29; 30:17-21; 40:7, 30-32; Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:22

[30] Exodus 25:31-40

[31] Exodus 25:23-30; Hebrews 9:2

[32] Exodus 30:1-37; Hebrews 9:2

[33] Exodus 26:31-33; Hebrews 10:19-20

[34] Exodus 26:33-34; Hebrews 9:3

[35] Exodus 25:10-16; Hebrews 9:4; c.f. John 6:44 & Ephesians 2:8-9

[36] Exodus 25:17-22; Hebrews 9:5

[37] Exodus 26:15-30; 27:9-19

[38] Hebrews 9:22

[39] I Corinthians 6:20

[40] I Peter 1:18-19

[41] Exodus 30:11-16

[42] Exodus 26:15-30; 27:9-19

[43] Judges 16:21; II Kings 25:7

[44] Revelation 19:8

[45] James 2:10

[46] Romans 8:3

[47] II Corinthians 5:17

[48] John 10:9

[49] Isaiah 53:2

[50] I Corinthians 2:14

[51] II Corinthians 4:4

[52] Exodus 38:18

[53] Matthew 2:2; 15:24; 27:42

[54] Mark 8:31; 10:33-34

[55] John 1:1-4, 14-18; 3:16-18

[56] Matthew 11:28

[57] Exodus 27:1-8

[58] John 10:1

[59] Proverbs 14:12

[60] Isaiah 53:7; John 3:16; Acts 2:23

[61] I Corinthians 15:3-4

[62] Acts 4:10-13

[63] Leviticus 6:12-13

[64] Leviticus 9:24

[65] Galatians 2:20

[66] Exodus 30:17-21; 38:8

[67] John 13:5-11

[68] James 1:23

[69] Titus 3:5

[70] For more on justification see WCSK Part V: Jesus Christ.

[71] II Corinthians 6:17

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