Shadow to Reality: Worship from the Tabernacle to the Heavenly Throne Room

The author of Hebrews tells us that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”.[1]

A principal theme that can be traced through the Bible is the loss and recovery of God’s presence, beginning with unbroken fellowship in the Garden of Eden, through to the Fall and separation, the Patriarch’s altar-building and sacrifice, the Tabernacle of Moses in the desert, followed by Solomon’s Temple, to Jesus’ tabernacling amongst humankind[2], the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the early church, to the glorious continual worship in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The Tabernacle was first instituted in Exodus 25 according to the pattern and design that God revealed to Moses so that the Lord might dwell among His people.[3] Within the Tabernacle, were items of furnishings which hold special significance and which ultimately point to and prefigures the person of Christ.[4] Importantly, the Tabernacle was divided into three parts: the Outer Courts, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Whilst the presence of God dwelt in the Tabernacle (represented by the Ark of the Covenant), the Holy of Holies was only accessible once a year, when the High Priest would enter to make atonement for the people of Israel.[5]

The Tabernacle’s design emphasised the holiness of God. Allen P Ross observes:

One begins to realise that people could not presume to determine how to approach God. God himself had to make the way clear by revealing the plans for the tabernacle. Because it was “the house of the Lord,” the design had to stress the majesty, beauty and holiness of God.[6]

Significantly, God’s intention was that all of Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests”, qualified to mediate between God’s presence and the kingdoms of the world.[7] The proviso was that the Israelites had to fully obey God and keep His covenant. However, the Israelites broke the first commandment even before Moses descended from Sinai to deliver God’s blueprint. The result was that God chose an exclusive priesthood from within the Israelites, the tribe of Levi.[8]

Solomon’s temple (situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) marked a permanent dwelling place for God amongst Israel: permanent in the sense that the site was immovable, but yet transient in the sense that God made it clear that should Israel turn from God, He too would forsake the temple as His dwelling place.[9]

The site of the Temple itself was significant. In Genesis 22, it was known as Mt Moriah, the place at which Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, “your only son … whom you love”[10] before God interrupted the show of obedience by providing God’s own substitutionary sacrifice: a ram caught by its horns in the thicket, being a type of Jesus, the sacrificial lamb crowned with thorns. In 2 Samuel, it was known as the threshing floor of Araunah, a place where God’s judgment met with His mercy[11], prefiguring Christ’s work of redemption on the cross.

The Temple preserved the structure of the Tabernacle but on a grander scale. None of the ritual and ceremony however could prevent the withdrawing of God’s presence and the Temple’s destruction when the Israelites turned away from God.

The Early Church’s worship represented a fundamental change in modus operandi. Based on Christ’s righteous qualification of God’s people through the work on the cross, the church was now the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation”[12] that God had desired ever since Exodus 19. Now, the church would be the mediator of God’s presence and the world. And the High Priest was no longer a fallible human being, but Jesus Himself, whose holiness was constant and undeniable, whose life was indestructible and whose sacrifice was once and for all.[13]

A key theme in early Christian worship, as Robert Webber observes, is that “Jewish ceremonies were reinterpreted as having been fulfilled in Christ and his church.”[14] Webber goes on to state:

These reinterpretations of Jerusalem, the temple, the sacrifices, the Passover Lamb, and the priesthood, along with their application to the emerging church, were radical and new. They reached into the very essence of Judaism and struck at the heart of Jewish worship.[15]

Breaking free from structure and regiment, freedom in form characterised the Early Church’s worship.[16] Acts 2:42 describes some of the elements:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Surprisingly little is said about how the followers of Christ actually conducted their worship. Historians such as Justin Martyr described prayers, the reading of Scripture, signing, the Eucharist, preaching of the sermon and Baptism amongst the actions of Early Church worship.[17]

But even then, the author of the Book of Hebrews prefigures a greater restoration of worship yet to come. In Hebrews 12, the writer states that “you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire [Sinai]… but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” It is a prefiguring of a glorious, continuous worship described in Revelation, where God’s manifest presence dwells among His people in a celestial city and the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our reigning Lord and Christ.[18] And as joint heirs and kings, God’s people will rule and reign with Christ in this new paradigm.

Allen Ross observes:

John’s prophetic book brings forward the imagery of the Garden of Eden, with which we began this journey. The river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flows from the throne of God and from the Lamb, down through the city of God. And on either side of it stands the Tree of Life, bearing its fruit regularly and providing healing for the nations. The inclusion of the river reminds us that God is the source of life. And the emphasis on the Tree of Life tells us that the curse is over, that life has triumphed over death, that humans are no longer barred from living forever in the presence of God….”

Worship reaches its zenith in Revelation because not only have God’s people been spiritually united with Him in Christ, they are now physically re-united with their Creator in a new unceasing Paradise.

[1] Hebrews 10:1.

[2] John 1:14 says “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacled] among us”.

[3] Exodus 25:8.

[4] It is not within the scope of this essay to consider this issue further.

[5] Leviticus 16:34.

[6] Allen P Ross Recalling the Hope of Glory (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), p 191.

[7] Exodus 19:5,6 records this intention.

[8] Exodus 32.

[9] 2 Chronicles 7:19-22.

[10] Genesis 22:2. Isaac is a type of Jesus, God’s “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

[11] Threshing often represents judgment in the Bible. In 2 Samuel 24, God judges David for taking a census of Israel and sends a plague which finally stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah. Here David purchased the threshing floor as the future site of the Temple that Solomon would build.

[12] 1 Peter 2:9.

[13] Hebrews 10:1-12.

[14] Robert E Webber Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p 45.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:17, talking about the fading glory of Moses and the Law: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

[17] See “Spirit Filled Worship in the Early Church” in Lamar Boschman, A Heart of Worship (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998) pp 128-139.

[18] Revelation 11:15.

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