In the gospel of John, Jesus is the true Tabernacle where God dwells. Unlike the ancient structure with its inner sanctuary that only the high priest could enter, now, in Christ, His glory is visible for all men to see. No longer is His presence limited by physical walls and geographic boundaries.
In Jesus of Nazareth, the Father and the Creator of all things is worshipped anywhere and anytime “in spirit and truth.”
What was foreshadowed in the ancient Tabernacle and the later Temple building finds its substance in Jesus Christ, the Logos, the “word made flesh.”
The epistle to the Hebrews also presents the true significance of the Tabernacle but from a different perspective. In its imagery, Jesus is not the tent itself but the greater high priest who now ministers in the true and greater Tabernacle “not made with hands.”
THE TRUE TENT
According to the letter, after “achieving the purification of sin,” the Son “sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”
This last clause alludes to Psalm 110:1. But in Hebrews, it not only applies it to his enthronement as king over the cosmos but also to his appointment as the High Priest who now mediates for his people in the “real tabernacle,” and in the very presence of God Himself - (Hebrews 1:3-4, 8:1).
The image in the letter is based not on the Temple complex in the city of Jerusalem, but on the “tent” or “tabernacle” that Israel carried during its wilderness sojourn. This is clear not only from the use of the Greek noun, skéné or “tent,” but also by the description - “which the Lord pitched.” One “builds” a temple complex, but a tent is “pitched.”
The distinction is important since the epistle is stressing the transitoriness of the earthly “sanctuary” in contrast to the permanence of its heavenly counterpart. And in Hebrews, all historical references to the “sanctuary” refer to the ancient Tabernacle, the “tent of meeting.”
THE TRUE PRIEST
“Now in the things which we are saying the chief point is this: We have such a high priest who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man”– (Hebrews 8:1-2).
And as our High Priest, Jesus is the “minister of the sanctuary.” The term rendered “minister” in the passage is leitourgos, a noun used in secular Greek for “public servants” who served the people, whether in religious rituals or governmental capacities. And here, it points to one who ministers on behalf of the people.
And the priestly Son serves his people in the “sanctuary,” which translates the noun naos. In the New Testament, naos normally refers to the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle or Temple, the “most holy place” or Holy of Holies.”
But in the structure of the sentence, “sanctuary” and “real tent” refer to one and the same thing, and “pitched” is in the singular number since only one structure is “pitched by the Lord.”
In other words, the “sanctuary” or “holy place” and the “tent” are one and the same. The old distinction between the inner and outer courts of the Tabernacle does not exist in the “true Tabernacle.” This becomes clearer in chapter 9 of the epistle.
SHADOW vs SUBSTANCE
And the ancient Tabernacle was a mere “copy and shadow” of the true and greater Tabernacle where our High Priest ministers for us. And the author of Hebrews cites Scripture to demonstrate this reality. After all, Moses was commanded to construct a copy of the heavenly sanctuary shown to him by Yahweh – (Hebrews 8:3-5).
Moreover, Moses did not see the actual heavenly sanctuary but its “pattern.” In short, Moses made a copy of a copy. This is not said to denigrate Moses or anything that God gave to Israel, but to stress the vast superiority of the Son over all that preceded him.
At this point, the epistle introduces the subject of the “new covenant” promised in the book of Jeremiah. Just as Jesus holds a superior priesthood and ministers in the “real tent,” so he also offers better sacrifices and inaugurated a “better covenant.”
The references to the “former covenant” refer not to the one made with Abraham, but to the Mosaic legislation that included the Aaronic priesthood, animal sacrifices, the Tabernacle, and its various rituals. The very fact that the “new covenant” has commenced means the old system, including its “ordinances of divine service,” is rendered obsolete – (Hebrews 8:7-9:1).
The author then treats the ancient Tabernacle as if it consisted of two separate tents. In the old structure, there was the outer court, the “first” tent that housed the “lampstand, the table, and the showbread,” namely, the “Holy place.” Beyond the “veil” or “curtain” was the inner sanctuary, the “second tent,” the “Holy of holies.” It contained the “golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant.”
The priests ministered daily in the “first” tent, making offerings and animal sacrifices. However, only the high priest could enter the “second” or inner tent, and only once each year on the Day of Atonement – (Hebrews 9:2-7).
Thus, the structure of the old Tabernacle demonstrates graphically that the “way into the Holy of holies” remained obscure while the outer court was still “standing.” Only the High Priest could access it (“the Holy Spirit this signifying”).
But the Tabernacle with this twofold structure is a “figure,” a “type and shadow” in the present age of something more profound and quite permanent.
The goal of God’s redemptive plan is not for every Israelite to enter the inner sanctuary in the earthly sanctuary, but to attain access for men from every nation to the “throne of grace” in the true and greater “Tabernacle.” The sacrifices and rituals of the old system can never achieve the “purification of sins” necessary to enter the sanctuary or make the individual worshipper “complete” and his conscious clean.
In contrast to the old system, as our High Priest, Jesus approached the divine throne through the “greater and more complete tabernacle, one not made with hands, not of this creation,” and he did so “once for all” and applied his own blood to remove the stain of sin, thus opening the way into the Divine presence for all men.
And with him now ministering “evermore” as the High Priest of his people, every member of the new covenant community has free access to the “throne of grace.”
Unlike the old Tabernacle with its multiple offerings and sacrifices, he entered the true and greater “Tabernacle” “pitched” by God and not by man, and there he remains making intercession daily on behalf of his people.
Some members of the congregation were contemplating returning to the local synagogue to escape increasing pressure. But to now abandon all that Jesus has provided by returning to an obsolete sacrificial system and transitory sanctuary would be foolhardy in the extreme.