When God instructed Moses concerning the construction of the Tabernacle, what did He have in mind? What was the purpose of this structure? Why did it include the furnishings it did and the materials from which they were made? Why was it set up and organized the way it was?
Moses was commanded by God to build it "[e]xactly as I show you...so you shall make it" (Ex 25.9). The instructions are detailed and specific and take up several chapters of Exodus. These chapters are quite a challenge to Bible readers. The detailed instructions are followed up with precise accounts of how these instructions were carefully obeyed in the actual manufacturing process. This arrangement of the literary material has the effect of bringing the exciting, dramatic events of the plagues on Egypt, the Exodus of Israel, and Israel's meeting with God at Mt. Sinai to a standstill. Only the golden calf incident breaks up this lengthy record about the Tabernacle (Ex 32-34).
It obviously is included for a reason. What is the point that's being made? What is the significance of this account of the Tabernacle? Instead of jumping into a detailed study of the minutia, let's focus on the Big Picture. Let's get a view of the forest before we start fixating on each individual tree.
Much about the Tabernacle is familiar. We've seen it before. There's gold (and plenty of it). The breastpiece of the High Priest is covered with precious stones. Water is present in the laver of cleansing. The seven-branched candlestick (menorah) is shaped and carved to resemble a tree. All the priests wear special garments (tunics). Cherubim are embroidered on the curtain separating the Most Holy Place (the Holy of Holies that contains the ark of the covenant) from the Holy Place (with the menorah, the table of the bread of the Presence, and the altar of incense).
The Tabernacle reminds us of the garden of Eden! It's a picture of Paradise. The Tabernacle is a portable Paradise! Read again the opening chapters of Genesis and you'll discover the elements that make up the Tabernacle were originally present in Eden.
The menorah reminds us of the trees in the garden, esp. the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The water in the laver reflects the river that flowed out of Eden to water the garden. Like the High Priest's breastpiece, there were precious stones in Eden. And we are told that "the gold of that land is good" (Gen 2.12). After the Fall God killed and skinned an animal (a priestly activity) to clothe Adam and Eve in garments ("tunics," the word used to describe the priestly garments). Like the cherubim embroidered on the curtain of the Most Holy Place to warn people to keep out, God placed cherubim "to guard the way to the tree of life" after Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden for their sin (Gen 3.24).
While we know the Levites were to serve as priests in Israel, we are also told that the nation as a whole was to fulfill a priestly role to the surrounding nations. God's covenant with Israel included His call that they be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19.6). Even this vocation seems to find its origin in the Genesis account of the creation of man.
The ESV translation of Genesis 2.15 is typical of most translations: "The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it." The translation leads us to believe that God put man in the garden to take care of it. God created Adam to be a gardener or groundskeeper. That task hardly seems in keeping with being the only creature of all God's creation made in His image and likeness and given dominion over the rest of creation! However, the pronoun "it" does not match the gender of the Hebrew for garden in the original; "garden" is not the antecedent to the pronoun "it." Also, the words translated "work" and "keep" are understood in the covenantal context between man and God as "serve, minister, worship" and "heed, obey." Adam's original calling was to serve as priest in God's creation.
Clearly, then, God intentionally sets forth in His Word this Tabernacle-Paradise connection. In it the point is made that God is moving forward with redemptive history. The Paradise that Adam lost by virtue of his sin and rebellion against God, God Himself is actively pursuing to restore. God is moving history toward His intended goal of renewal, recreation, redemption, and restoration.
It is equally obvious that the Tabernacle, the Law, the Mosaic covenant, the OT priesthood and sacrificial system is not that goal. This set-up is not the last word, is not the solution. Paradise may be pictured here, but it is not achieved by these means. It is anticipated. It is pre-figured, promised, and prophesied, but not accomplished. Sacrifice is made for sin over and over and over again. Day after day. Year after year. Generation after generation. And still the way into the Most Holy Place is barred. Ever notice how many barriers exist in the Tabernacle? The vast majority of Israelites never even saw the furnishings of the Tabernacle. They were covered in transit and hidden behind curtains when set up.
All this remained in place until "the fullness of time had come" (Gal 4.4). Christ is the fulfillment of the Tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrificial system, the Mosaic covenant, the Law. Read the book of Hebrews especially. Christ is our great High Priest. When He makes purification for sins, He sits down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb 1.3b, note: there were no chairs in the Tabernacle/Temple!) Christ Himself is the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world! (Jn 1.29). He is the Priest who presents Himself as the sacrifice for sins, and not for His own sins but for the sins of the world! (1 Jn 2.2). The offering for sin He makes, and the death that He dies as the sinners' substitute, is once for all! This High Priest alone can cry from the cross, the place of His atoning work, "It is finished!" (Jn. 19.30). The Lord Jesus Christ brings humanity's exile to an end. Not only is the veil in the Temple torn in two from top to bottom, but He tells the repentant thief on the cross next to Him, "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise!" (Mt 27.51; Lk 23.43).