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The Tabernacle: Essentials, Symbolism, Fulfillment in Jesus

by Dr. Eitan Bar
10 minutes read

The Tabernacle, a divine structure outlined in the book of Exodus, served as the dwelling place of God among the Israelites during their wilderness journey. During the Exodus and the wandering in the desert, the Tabernacle was portable, symbolizing the closeness of Emmanual—God with us. The Tabernacle’s detailed construction and the symbolism embedded within each element have profound spiritual significance, which, when viewed from a Christian perspective, find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This article offers a quick overview of the intricate symbolism of the Tabernacle and explores how these symbols point to and are fulfilled by Jesus, enriching the reader with a deeper understanding and spiritual insight.

The Outer Court

Upon entering the Tabernacle’s outer court, one first encounters the bronze altar, where sacrifices are offered. This altar symbolizes the need for an atonement that cleans and purifies, as outlined in Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls.” (Read “What is Atonement?“) The act of sacrifice (Read “What Most Christians Overlook Regarding Sacrifice in the Bible“) highlights the gravity of sin and the necessity of cleaning and purifying what got contaminated as part of the act of worship of the God of Israel.

In the New Testament, Jesus fulfills this symbolism as the ultimate atoning sacrifice, the blood that cleans everything white once and for all. John the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate offering, rendering all previous sacrifices obsolete and providing a once-for-all atonement for sin (Hebrews 10:10). Bronze is unique in biblical symbolism because it represents strength and durability. In the context of the bronze altar, the bronze signifies the enduring and powerful nature of God’s grace. The metal’s resistance to corrosion also symbolizes the lasting and unchanging nature of God’s justice. Thus, the bronze altar points to Jesus as the strong and enduring means by which sin is atoned for.

Adjacent to the bronze altar is the laver, a large basin for the priests to wash their hands and feet before performing their duties. This act of cleansing signifies the need for purification. In the New Testament, this is mirrored by the concept of baptism, which symbolizes both the washing away of sins and anointing for a mission. Likewise, Christian life is a mission that only begins with repentance (changing of one’s mind).

The Holy Place

The Golden Lampstand

Entering the Holy Place, we first see the golden lampstand (Menorah). Its light was the only source of illumination within the Holy Place, symbolizing God’s guidance and presence. Light symbolized various significant aspects to Israel, such as the divine fire atop Mount Sinai and the pillar of fire guiding them during the Exodus (Exodus 13:21). Light’s significance extends beyond physical illumination to symbolize guidance and wisdom, a path shown in the dark.

Jesus fulfills this imagery by proclaiming, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). As the Menorah illuminated the sanctuary, so does Jesus illuminate the path to God and dispel the darkness of evil, guiding believers with divine light.

The seven lamps of the Menorah represent the perfection and completeness of God’s spirit. The lampstand also symbolizes the church, which is called to be a light in the world (Matthew 5:14-16). Believers, as the body of Christ, are to reflect His light, bringing truth and grace to those around them. The continuous burning of the lamps signifies the constant presence of God and the eternal light that Jesus provides His followers.

The Table of Showbread

Opposite the lampstand is the table of showbread, which held twelve loaves representing the twelve tribes of Israel. These loaves, also called the “Bread of Presence,” signify God’s provision and fellowship with His people. Every Sabbath, the bread was replaced, and the old loaves were eaten by the priests, symbolizing the sustenance that God provides. Jesus identifies himself with this symbol in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Just as bread sustains physical life, Jesus sustains spiritual life. By coming to Him and believing in Him, individuals will find their deepest spiritual needs satisfied, symbolized by never hungering or thirsting again. As the bread sustained the priests, Jesus sustains us spiritually, offering eternal life and fellowship with God.

The showbread also points to the Last Supper, where Jesus broke bread and shared it with His disciples, instituting the practice of communion. Just as bread sustains physical life, Jesus sustains spiritual life. By coming to Him and believing in Him, individuals will find their deepest spiritual needs satisfied, symbolized by never hungering or thirsting again. Just as bread sustains physical life, Jesus sustains spiritual life: “He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.'” (Luke 22:19) This act commemorates Jesus’ sacrifice and His continued presence with believers. As the bread of life, Jesus nourishes our souls and strengthens our faith.

The Altar of Incense

In front of the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place stands the altar of incense. The incense burned here represents the prayers of the saints ascending to God (Psalm 141:2). Revelation 8:3-4 vividly depicts this connection, showing the prayers of the saints rising before God with the incense. Jesus, as our high priest, intercedes on our behalf, ensuring that our prayers are heard (Hebrews 7:25).

The sweet aroma of the incense symbolizes the pleasing nature of sincere prayers and worship of God. The continuous burning of incense signifies the importance of persistent and fervent prayer in the life of a believer. Just as incense was a regular part of the Tabernacle worship, prayer should be a regular part of our spiritual lives, connecting us with God and aligning our hearts with His will.

The Most Holy Place

The Ark of the Covenant

Throughout history, the Ark of the Covenant has been one of the most sacred artifacts in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is first mentioned in the Book of Exodus, where God instructs Moses to build an ark to carry the Ten Commandments, and it should be plated with gold inside.

Historically, the Ark was the center of the Israelite religion, symbolizing the presence of the Hebrew God, Yahweh, on Earth. If there were questions needing divine guidance, the Ark was where one would go to petition God. In times of battle, the Ark was carried into conflict, representing God’s presence. As long as the Ark, emblematic of God’s presence, was with the Israelites, they believed they could not be conquered. In essence, the Ark of the Covenant was seen as God dwelling among the Israelites, making it an extraordinarily powerful symbol.

The Ark represents God’s throne and His covenant with Israel. Inside it were the stone tablets of the Law, Aaron’s rod that budded, and a jar of manna. These items symbolize God’s guidance, authority, and provision. The Ark itself was a chest made of acacia wood overlaid with gold, symbolizing the divine and human nature of Christ.

The mercy seat atop the Ark, where the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the atonement sacrifice, represents God’s throne of grace. Jesus, through His sacrifice, becomes our mercy seat. Romans 3:25 states, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” Jesus’ blood, sprinkled on the heavenly mercy seat, ensures our forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Just as the high priest made atonement for Israel once a year, Jesus’ sacrifice makes eternal atonement for all who believe.

The presence of God dwelt between the cherubim on the mercy seat, symbolizing His desire to be among His people and the interaction between heaven and earth. In the New Testament, this presence is fulfilled through the Holy Spirit, who dwells within believers, making our bodies the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).

The Veil

The veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place symbolizes the mystery of God’s presence and the hidden nature of divine things. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year, signifying that the fullness of God’s glory and His divine plan were not yet fully revealed to humanity.

When Jesus died, this veil was torn in two, from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51), signifying the unveiling of God’s presence through Jesus. It marks the moment when the hidden mysteries of God’s salvation were made known through Jesus. Now, through Jesus, anyone can enter the Most Holy Place. Hebrews 10:19-20 explains, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.”

This profound act symbolizes the complete and finished work of Christ on the cross, providing a way for us to enter into an intimate relationship with God.

The High Priest

The high priest’s role in the Tabernacle, particularly on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), is profoundly symbolic of Jesus’ priestly ministry. The high priest would enter the Most Holy Place once a year to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. This act of atonement involved the sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat to cover the sins of Israel.

The garments of the high priest, described in detail in Exodus, also have symbolic meanings. The ephod, breastplate, and mitre represent God’s righteousness. The high priest bore the names of the twelve tribes on his shoulders and over his heart, symbolizing love for His people.

As our high priest, Jesus continually intercedes for us, advocating on our behalf before the Father. Hebrews 9:11-12 reveals how Jesus, as our high priest, entered the heavenly sanctuary once and for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. Jesus’ priestly ministry is superior to that of the earthly high priests.

Here are a few points illustrating how and why Jesus’ sacrifice is considered superior to the Levitical sacrifices:

  1. Selection of Priests: Levitical priests were chosen based on lineage, not merit or character, simply being born into the priestly line. In contrast, Jesus was tested and proven worthy to serve as our representative priest (Hebrews 7:11–22).
  2. Eternal Priesthood: Levitical priests were mortal and needed successors. Jesus, however, serves as an eternal priest, never to be replaced (Hebrews 7:23–25).
  3. Sinlessness: Levitical priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sins due to their imperfections. Jesus, being perfect, required no such sacrifices for Himself (Hebrews 7:26–27).
  4. Heavenly Ministry: While Levitical priests served in a physical, earthly tabernacle, Jesus ministers in a heavenly setting, which is the true form of the structures replicated on Earth (Hebrews 8:1–5).
  5. A New Covenant: Jesus’ priesthood under a New Covenant indicates its superiority, as the existence of a new covenant suggests the insufficiency of the old one (Hebrews 8:6–13).
  6. Holy of Holies Access: The high priest entered the earthly Holy of Holies once a year with animal blood. Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary once and for all with His own blood, now sitting at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us (Hebrews 9:11–24).
  7. Quality of Sacrifice: Animal sacrifices and Yom Kippur in the Old Testament were repeated annually, highlighting their limited efficacy. Jesus’ sacrifice, eternal and perfect, was offered once and for all, because He is eternal, not a created being (Hebrews 9:25-10:4). Unlike the Bible’s limited sacrifice, Jesus’ sacrifice is also universal: “The living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10); “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18); “If anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2); “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
  8. Universal Access: Access to the Holy of Holies was highly restricted under the Levitical system, limited to the high priest once a year. Through Jesus, however, we can enter the Most Holy Place by His blood, a new and living way opened through His body (Hebrews 10:19–20, Matthew 27:51).

In summary, the Old Testament priest served as a shadow of the perfect and complete priesthood of Christ.

The Coverings of the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle was covered by four layers, each with its own significance. The first covering was made of fine woven linen with artistic designs of cherubim in blue, purple, and scarlet thread. This layer signifies the heavenly nature of the Tabernacle and the holiness of God. The colors blue, purple, and scarlet represent different aspects of Christ’s ministry: His heavenly origin, His kingship, and His sacrifice.

The second covering was made of goats’ hair, symbolizing the Hatat offering. In Leviticus 16, goats are used in the Day of Atonement rituals, with one goat being sacrificed and the other (the scapegoat) being sent into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people. This points to Jesus, who not only bore our sins but also removed them.

The third covering was made of ram skins dyed red, signifying the sacrificial blood of Christ. The ram skins dyed red can also symbolize God’s covenantal faithfulness. In ancient Near Eastern cultures, covenants were often ratified with blood, signifying the seriousness and binding nature of the agreement. The red dye can be seen as a representation of God’s unwavering commitment to His people and the covenant established through Jesus’ sacrificial blood.

The fourth and outermost covering was made of badger skins (sometimes translated as “sea cow” or “porpoise skins”), which provided protection and durability. These skins were known for their toughness and durability, symbolizing the protective aspect of God’s presence. This layer shielded the Tabernacle from harsh weather conditions, representing how God protects and preserves His people through the challenges of life.


The Tabernacle’s intricate design and the rituals performed within it were not merely religious formalities but profound spiritual symbols pointing to the ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Each element of the Tabernacle—the bronze altar, the laver, the lampstand, the table of showbread, the altar of incense, the Ark of the Covenant, the veil, the high priest, and the coverings—finds its ultimate meaning and fulfillment in Jesus.

As Christians, understanding the symbolism of the Tabernacle deepens our appreciation of Jesus’ sacrificial work and His ongoing ministry as our high priest. It reminds us of the profound truth that through Jesus, we have direct access to God, our sins are atoned for, and we are invited into an eternal relationship with Him. This revelation not only enriches our knowledge but also uplifts our spirits, encouraging us to live in the light and fullness of the salvation that Jesus has provided.

The Tabernacle serves as a constant reminder of God’s desire to dwell among His people and His provision for our salvation through Jesus Christ. As we study its details, we are drawn closer to the heart of God and inspired to walk in deeper fellowship with Him. Through the lens of the Tabernacle, we see the majesty and grace of God’s redemptive plan and are moved to worship and serve Him with renewed fervor and gratitude.

If you enjoyed this article, I wrote several more and compiled them into a short book about the Biblical Feast of Israel.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist