Back in chapter 24 we read how the covenant between the Lord and his people was confirmed with the offering of sacrifices and the eating of a fellowship meal. And then, after the covenant was confirmed, Moses ascended Mt Sinai and entered the glory-cloud of the Lord; and for 40 days and 40 nights he stayed on the mountain, where the Lord spoke to him.
And we’ve seen how, in chapter 25, the Lord instructed him about the various pieces of furniture which were to be set up in the Tabernacle: the ark of the covenant; the table for the Bread of Presence; and the lamp stand.
And then, in chapter 26, the Lord instructed Moses about how the Tabernacle was to be constructed. Do you remember? The Tabernacle was a special tent which symbolised the presence of the Lord with his people and which was made from linen curtains and timber frames; and nearly everything in the Tabernacle was to be overlaid with gold and silver and bronze. Then there were to be two rooms: the Holy Place — which contained the table and the lamp stand — and the Most Holy Place — which contained the ark of the covenant. And a heavy curtain separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place; and only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place; and he could only enter there once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement, when he brought with him the blood of a sacrifice to cover over his guilt and the guilt of the people. And so, a curtain closed off the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. And another heavy curtain covered the entrance to the Holy Place. These curtains were a reminder to the people that they were unable to approach the Lord or to come near to him because of their guilt and sin. The people couldn’t come near, but had to remain outside, in the courtyard, which was this large area around the Tabernacle.
And God gave Moses instructions about the courtyard in chapter 27. And the courtyard contained the altar for the burnt offerings. And right at the end of chapter 27, the Lord commanded Moses to ensure that there was always olive oil available to keep the lights on the lamp stand lit.
The Tabernacle Represents the Cosmos
We studied chapters 26 and 27 last week to see how the Tabernacle reveals to us in various ways the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I won’t go over what we studied last week, but there was one further point to add. I mentioned last week that the Tabernacle was a copy and shadow of God’s heavenly temple. In other words, it was an earthly copy of the real thing, where God dwells.
However, some of the Bible scholars believe that the Tabernacle was designed by the Lord to be a model, not just of the heavenly-temple, but of the whole heavens and the earth. Think about it for a moment. The Tabernacle comprised three parts: the outer courtyard; the Holy Place; and the Most Holy Place. The heavens and the earth comprises three parts: there’s the earth where we live; then there’s the visible heavens, or the sky above us; and then, there’s the invisible heaven where God dwells.
So, the outer courtyard of the Tabernacle represents the earth; in fact, as well as containing the altar for burnt offerings, the courtyard also contained a large basin for washing; and this perhaps represents the sea. Then, the Holy Place represents the visible heavens, or the sky above us; and, in that case, the lamp stand in the Holy Place might represent the sun and the moon and the stars, all the lights in the sky. And the Most Holy Place represents the invisible heavens, where God dwells unseen. And so, it’s possible that the Tabernacle was designed by the Lord to represent the heavens and the earth.
And what’s the significance of that? We’re looking forward to the day when Jesus Christ comes again to make everything new and when there will be new heavens and a new earth. And in Revelation 21, we read that in the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no need for a physical temple, because the Lord God Almighty will dwell with his people; and God’s glorious presence will fill the entire cosmos.
So, the Tabernacle which Moses built, was a model of the heavens and earth as we know them now, where God dwells in the invisible heavens above and we dwell on the earth below. We live down here, whereas he dwells in a high and holy place, far above what he has created. That was reflected in the way the Tabernacle was built, because the Most Holy Place, where God dwelt, was separated from the courtyard, where the people gathered. But the day is coming when God’s glorious presence will fill the whole cosmos and he will dwell with his people for ever.
That’s one further point which I wanted to add today; and it’s a reminder of how we’re to look upwards to heaven, because that’s where our God dwells now, in all his glory and majesty; and it’s a reminder of how we’re to look forwards to the day when Christ our Saviour comes again and makes everything new and when we will be with our God for ever and for ever in the new heavens and earth.
Introduction to Chapters 28+29
Today, though, we come to chapters 28 and 29 which contain God’s instructions to Moses concerning the priests. And so, chapter 28 is all about what the priest, or more specifically, the High Priest, was to wear. And chapter 29 is about what they needed to do in order to consecrate the priests so that they could serve the Lord. As in previous weeks, let me go through the chapters as quickly as possible; and then, at the end, I’ll try to draw out the significance of these instructions for us.
In verses 1 to 5 of chapter 28 we have a summary of what is to follow: Aaron and his sons were to be brought before Moses so that they could serve the Lord as priests. God instructed Moses to have sacred, or holy, garments made for them, so that they would have dignity and honour. In other words, they needed special clothes for this special role. And the Lord lists the clothes they were to wear: a breastpiece; a ephod; a robe; a woven tunic; a turban; and a sash. Those who made the clothes for the priests were to use the same materials they used for the Tabernacle. In other words, they were to use gold and blue and purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen. Notice that the priesthood was an inherited office which was passed down from one generation to the next within Aaron’s family. Notice too that they were to serve the Lord. You see, the Tabernacle was God’s dwelling-place; his home; and just as any wealthy home-owner had servants, so the priests were God’s servants who served him in his home.
In the following verses, Moses was given instructions for each of the items of clothing Aaron was to wear. It begins with the ephod, which was worn over Aaron’s torso. Its special feature was the two onyx stones which were engraved with the names of the Tribes of Israel and which were fastened to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. The significance of these two stones, engraved with the names of the Tribes of Israel, is given in verse 12: they were memorial stones for the sons of Israel; Aaron was to bear their names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord. In other words, these stones were a reminder that Aaron the High Priest represented the people. Whenever he appeared before the Lord, to offer sacrifices to him, he was acting on behalf of the people whose names were written on his shoulders.
Next we have the breastpiece, which was a square piece of linen which went over the ephod. Twelve precious stones, in four rows of three, were fasten to the front of the breastpiece. Each of the twelve stones was engraved with one of the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. So, once again, the stones signified that Aaron represented the people. However, this breastpiece was really a pocket; because inside it were kept the Urim and Thummim. We’re not sure of the details of the Urim and Thummim. The words themselves mean something like ‘lights’ and ‘darks’; so perhaps they were light and dark stones. And they were used somehow to make decisions. Again, we don’t really know how: perhaps one colour of stone represented ‘yes’; and the other colour of stone represented ‘no’. Then, the priest would ask the Lord a question and draw out a stone, giving the answer. It might seem strange to us; and certainly the Lord has not authorised us to do this kind of thing today; but in those days, the Lord permitted it; and the priest wore the Urim and Thummim inside the breastpiece which was therefore known as the breastpiece for making decisions.
Next we have the robe in verses 31 to 35, which was made of cloth, and which had pomegranate-shaped tassels and bells on its hem. We’re told that the sounds of the bells will be heard when Aaron enters the Holy Place and when he comes out, so that he will not die. Some scholars think that this instruction was to make clear that even Aaron the High Priest could not barge his way into God’s presence, but must announce that he was coming by making the sound of the bells. Others think the sound of the bells was to let the others know that Aaron was still alive whenever he went into the Most Holy Place; if the bells stopped ringing, then perhaps he had collapsed; but if the bells could still be heard, then they knew that Aaron was alive and well and moving around.
Then Moses was instructed in verses 36 to 38 to make a gold plate and to engrave on it the words, ‘Holy to the Lord’. This plate was then attached to the front of Aaron’s turban. From verse 38 we learn that the gold plate symbolised how Aaron represented the people: when he brought sacrifices before the Lord, he brought them on behalf of the people, so that their guilt will be removed and they might be pardoned by God.
Verse 39 provides brief instructions about the tunic, the turban and the sash. And in verses 40 to 43 the Lord instructed Moses to make tunics, sashes and headbands for Aaron’s sons. Then, after Aaron and his sons had put on these special clothes, they were to be anointed with oil and ordained to serve as priests. All of them should also wear linen undergarments, because if they were to appear in Tabernacle without their undergarments, they would die. And, according to the final sentence of the chapter, this — everything we read in this chapter — was to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants: every High Priest was to wear these special clothes.
Moving on to chapter 29, we have instructions on how to consecrate or ordain Aaron and the priests. So, they were to take a bull and two rams without blemish; and they were to make bread, and cakes mixed with oil, and wafers spread with oil. Then Aaron and his sons were to come to the entrance of the Tabernacle and wash with water. Then Aaron was to put on the special clothes before being anointed with oil. His sons should also put on their special clothes. In this way, ‘you shall ordain Aaron and his sons’, it says in verse 9.
However, that was really only the beginning of the process. In verses 10 to 14 we read how Aaron and his sons were to place their hands on the bull which was then slaughtered. Placing their hands on the bull was to symbolise how their guilt was now transferred from them to the bull who died in their place. Some of its blood was put on the horns of the altar; the rest was poured out. Some of its flesh was burned on the altar; the rest was burned outside the camp.
In verses 15 to 18 we read how Aaron and his sons placed their hands on one of the rams which was then slaughtered in their place. The blood was sprinkled on the side of the altar. The ram was then cut up and burned on the altar as a whole burnt offering.
In verses 19 to 21 we read how Aaron and his sons placed their hands on the second ram which was then slaughtered in their place. Some of the blood was put on their right ear, their right thumb and the big toe of their right foot. It’s not clear why this happened, although it perhaps signified how every part of them was now consecrated to the Lord. The blood from the sacrifice was sprinkled on the side of the altar; then some of that blood was mixed with olive oil and sprinkled on Aaron and his sons. Then ‘he and his sons and their garments will be consecrated’, it says in verse 21.
Verses 22 to 26 tell us what they did with the rest of the second ram. Most of it, along with a loaf of the bread, a cake and a wafer, was waved before the Lord as an offering and burnt. Some of the meat was given to Aaron and his sons as their portion which they were allowed to eat.
Verses 27 to 30 make clear that Aaron and his sons were to receive a portion of the offerings every time the Israelites offered a fellowship offering to the Lord; and the special clothes were to be passed down through the generations from priest to priest.
Verses 31 to 34 contain instructions for how Aaron and his sons were to eat the meat they received from the offerings. And verses 35 to 37 make clear that the whole process to ordain Aaron would take seven days, because as well as offering the bull and two rams to ordain Aaron and his sons, they needed to offer a bull each day in order to purify the altar. And verses 38 to 46 contain instructions for the daily offerings which were to be presented to the Lord from that time on, with the promise in verse 42 that the Lord will meet with Moses and with all the people at the Tent of Meeting, which was another name for the Tabernacle. Having consecrated the Tabernacle and the altar and the priests, God will dwell among his people and be their God and they will know him as their Great Redeemer, because he was the one who brought them out of Egypt so that he might dwell with them.
Christ is our Priest
The best commentary on these verses is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews which makes clear to us that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest. For instance, in the opening verses of Hebrews, the writer tells us how in the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets. But in these, the last days, he has spoken to us by his Son who has provided purification for sins. So, just as Aaron and his sons offered sacrifices on the altar in the Tabernacle in order to purify the people from the guilt of their sins, so Jesus Christ our Great High Priest offered to God a perfect sacrifice to purify his people from the guilt of our sins.
And then, in Hebrews 3, the writer tells us to fix our thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. There you have it plainly: Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest. So, all that we read in the book of Exodus about Aaron and his sons was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, who is the real and perfect and eternal High Priest.
Let’s think for a moment of the work of Aaron and his sons and how they were to represent the people before the Lord. When they brought the sacrifices before the Lord in the Tabernacle, they did so on behalf of the people. This was signified by wearing their names, which were engraved on the two onyx stones fastened to the ephod and on the twelve precious stones fastened to the breastpiece. Wearing their names signified that they were representing the people.
In order to be our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ needed to be able to represent us. And he was able to represent us because, of course, he became one of us. Though he is the Eternal Son of God, equal to his Father in glory and power, nevertheless, he entered this world as a man so that he could serve as our Great High Priest and, our behalf, provide purification for our sins. And the author to the Hebrews refers to this when he tells us in chapter 2 that the one who makes men holy — in other words, the Son of God — and those who are made holy are of the same family. In other words, there’s unity and solidarity between them.
Furthermore, the author goes on to say that since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in our humanity. So, he took to himself our flesh and blood in order to represent us. And the writer goes on to say: surely it’s not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason, the writer adds — in other words, because he came to help humans, not angels — he had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful High Priest. In order to represent us before God, just as Aaron and his sons represented the Israelites before God, the Eternal Son of God had to become one of us. And so, he came to earth as a man; and he came to earth as a man so that he could represent us fully as our Great High Priest.
However, the main point the writer to the Hebrews makes when he writes about the Lord Jesus Christ being our High Priest, is to make clear that he is so much better and greater than Aaron and all the Old Testament priests.
And so, for instance, the writer to the Hebrews makes the point that there were many priests. Here in Exodus 28 and 29 we read about how Aaron was to be ordained and set apart for this work. But provision is also made for future priests who would take over the priesthood from Aaron when he died. However, because Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Yes, he died. But after his death, he was raised to life and now lives for ever and for ever. And so, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. The Old Testament priests came and went; they lived and died; their ability to help the people came to an end. But Jesus Christ is so much greater because he lives for ever and he’s therefore able to help us for ever.
Furthermore, Aaron and his sons needed to offer sacrifices for themselves, because they were sinners. That’s the whole point of chapter 29 where we read how the bull had to be sacrificed and the rams had to be sacrificed and Aaron and his sons had to be sprinkled with blood. They needed to be sprinkled with blood because they were sinners. Even the altar needed to be purified, because it was made by sinful people. Everything in the Tabernacle had to be cleansed. But — the writer to the Hebrews says in Hebrews 7 — the Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, is holy, blameless, pure and set apart from sinners. Unlike Aaron and his sons, Jesus Christ did not need to offer sacrifices for himself, because he had been made perfect.
And then Aaron and his sons served in the Tabernacle, which was only a shadow and copy of the heavenly-temple where God dwells. They served in an earthly temple only which was made by men. But Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, serves in the true tabernacle, set up by the Lord and not by men. Aaron and his sons entered the earthly tabernacle, but Jesus Christ our High Priest has entered heaven itself, where he appears before his Father in heaven on our behalf.
Furthermore, Aaron entered the Most Holy Place by the blood of goats and calves. And we know, of course, that it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats and other animals to take away our sins. In fact, the sacrifices Aaron and his sons offered for themselves and for others were really only a reminder of sin: they reminded the people that they were sinners; and they helped the people to look forward in faith to the time when God would provide the perfect sacrifice to take away their sins for ever. So, all Aaron could do was come before the Lord with the blood of an animal to remind the people that they were sinners. But the Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, has entered the Most Holy Place in heaven by means of his own blood, by which he has obtained for us an eternal redemption. And by the sacrifice of his body, all who trust in him are pardoned and made holy for ever.
In every way, the Lord Jesus Christ is a better and greater High Priest than Aaron and his sons could ever be. They were subject to death; but he lives for ever and is therefore able to help us forever. They were sinners who had to offer sacrifices for themselves; but he is holy and pure and blameless. They served in the made-made copy of heaven; but he has entered heaven itself. They could only offer the blood of animals; but he offered his own blood which is able to make us perfect forever. Aaron and his sons were priests only for the time being; they were to make do and fill in until the time came when the Lord Jesus Christ appeared on the earth as our perfect, sinless, everlasting High Priest. And since he became one of us, he is able to represent us perfectly and to bring us to God.
What then is our response to all this? Well, again the writer to the Hebrews help us. In chapter 10, he writes:
Therefore, brothers, since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
The person who feels guilty is reluctant to come before the Lord, because he’s afraid of what God might do to him. Like Adam and Eve, who hid from the Lord because of their sin, so the person who feels guilty will stay away from God. But if we understand that Christ Jesus, our Great High Priest, has provided purification for sins, and that we have been cleansed and forgiven by the blood of Christ, then we will come before God with confidence to worship him.
The writer to the Hebrew continues and says: let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Our hope is the hope of the resurrection from the dead and everlasting life with God. Just as Christ our Great High Priest has gone into the heavenly-temple, so we are looking forward to the day when we too will come in body and soul into God’s presence. And so, since Jesus Christ our Great High Priest has opened the way for us into God’s presence, then let nothing cause you to let go of our hope in the resurrection and everlasting life in God’s presence; and let nothing distract you and deflect you from following Christ the Saviour, because the way into God’s presence has been opened to us.
And finally, the writer to the Hebrews says: let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds as we meet together and encourage one another. Jesus Christ our Great High Priest has provided purification for sins. All who trust in him have been cleansed and forgiven. But now, let’s not go back to our old ways; let’s not go back to a life of sin and shame; let’s instead encourage one another and spur one another on to a life of holiness and obedience, a life of love and good deeds while we wait for our Great High Priest to appear again and to lead us into the presence of the Lord where we will be with him for ever and for ever.