In John’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as the true Tabernacle where God dwells and His glory is seen. Unlike the ancient structure with its inner sanctuary that only the high priest could enter, His glory is manifested for all men to see. No longer is His presence limited by physical walls and geographical boundaries. In Jesus of Nazareth, the Father and 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 in Jerusalem finds its substance in Jesus, the Logos, the “Word become flesh.”
The Letter to the Hebrews also describes 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 Tabernacle in the Heavenlies, one “NOT MADE WITH HANDS.”
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 Hebrews not only applies that passage 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 very presence of God - (Hebrews 1:3-4, 8:1).
The image in the Letter is based not on the later Temple complex in Jerusalem, but on the “tent” or “tabernacle” that Israel carried in 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, but a tent is “pitched.”
The distinction is important since the Letter stresses the transitoriness of the earthly “Sanctuary” in contrast to the permanence of its Heavenly counterpart. Moreover, in Hebrews, all historical references to the “Sanctuary” are about the ancient Tabernacle, the “tent of meeting.”
“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 – Emphasis added).
And as our High Priest, Jesus is the “minister of the Sanctuary.” The term translated as “minister” is leitourgos, a noun used in secular Greek for a “public servant” who serves the people, whether in religious rituals or governmental capacities.
The priestly Son of God serves his people in the true “Sanctuary.” This term translates the noun naos, which, in the New Testament, normally refers to the inner Sanctuary of the Tabernacle or Temple, the “most holy place” or Holy of Holies. However, 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” and “tent” are identical. The old distinction between the inner and outer courts of the Tabernacle does not exist in the “Tabernacle pitched by God.” This becomes clearer in Chapter 9 of the Letter.
SHADOW vs SUBSTANCE
The ancient Tabernacle was a mere “copy and shadow” of the true and greater Tabernacle where our High Priest now ministers for us. The Letter 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).
Moses did not see the actual heavenly sanctuary but its “PATTERN.” In short, the Great Lawgiver made a COPY OF A COPY. This is not said to denigrate him or anything that God gave to Israel, but to stress the vast superiority of the Son and all that pertains to him over everyone and everything that preceded him.
At this point, the Letter 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, and the Tabernacle with its rituals and furnishings. The 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 Letter then treats the old 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 of the earthly Tabernacle, but to attain access for men from every nation to the “Throne of grace” in the true and greater “Tent.”
The sacrifices and rituals of the old system could never achieve the “purification of sins” necessary to enter the Sanctuary, nor could they make the individual worshipper “complete” or cleanse his or her conscience of sin’s stain.
In contrast to the “former” 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,” applying his own blood to remove sin. Thus, he opened the way into God’s presence for all men. 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, where he remains making intercession daily on behalf of his people.
Some members of the congregation addressed by the Letter 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 system and transitory Sanctuary would be foolhardy in the extreme.