Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the directions for constructing the tabernacle. The Lord wants this tent built so that he can dwell with his people and be in their midst (Exodus 25:8). Further, it is critical that the tent be made according to the pattern exactly as it is shown to Moses because, according to the writer of Hebrews, this was a copy of a heavenly sanctuary. The details of the tent were given in Exodus 25-27. But there is something else that is needed for God to dwell with his people. God not only needs a holy tent but also a holy priesthood. It is this priesthood that God details in Exodus 28-31.
Priests’ Clothing (28:1-43)
The first thing we see about the priesthood is that they are special. Not anyone can be a priest. God declares in Exodus 28:1 that it will be the sons of Aaron that will serve him as priests. Holy clothing would be made for Aaron as high priest to give him dignity and honor and special clothing was made for Aaron’s sons to be priests.
One of the beautiful pictures of the high priest’s clothing is found in verse 9. The names of the sons of Israel are engraved on two onyx stones, set in gold, and placed on the shoulders of the ephod of the high priest. Notice why in verse 12: “And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance.” In this way the names of Israel are before the Lord. This is done again in verse 21 where there are twelve stones in the breastplate of the high priest, each one engraved with a name of one of the sons of Israel. Verse 29 confirms again that the reason is so that the high priest will carry the names of the sons of Israel on his heart when he goes into the Holy Place, bringing them to remembrance before the Lord. Not only this, but a turban was placed on the high priest, as described in verse 37-38 which symbolized the high priest bearing any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrated. Even the holy gifts of the people were still defiled and needed a mediator. What a picture as the high priest had the names of Israel on his shoulders and on his heart as he came into the presence of God, carrying the people’s guilt “that they might be accepted before the Lord” (28:38). The ideal is presented in verse 36 because on that turban that the high priest worn was a gold plate with the engraving, “Holy to the Lord.”
We need to have this picture in our hearts when we think about Jesus as our high priest. What Jesus does as high priest is makes constant intercession for us in the very presence of the Lord.
Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25 ESV)
What Jesus does is bring our names into the presence of God all day, every day, bearing any guilt we have from what we have offered to the Lord so that our gifts might be accepted before the Lord. Jesus is that ideal seen in this picture of the high priest, for he truly is holy to the Lord. This brings us to the next section in Hebrews concerning the consecration of the priests.
Priests Consecrated (29:1-46)
Exodus 29 is quite jarring to our senses. In chapter 28 we read about the beauty of the high priest’s garments. He is wearing beautiful colored yarns and linens, onyx stones on the shoulders, precious gems on the front, and a turban with a gold plate that reads, “Holy to the Lord.” But notice what is to happen next in Exodus 29:10. They bring a bull into the tent, lay their hands on its head, and then kill the bull. The blood is then put on the horns of the altar and the blood is poured at the base of the altar. Then various parts of the bull are burned on the altar. Next a ram is brought into the tent and the priests lay their hands on it and then kill it (29:15). Then the blood was thrown against the sides of the altar and the ram was burned on the altar. Then another ram was brought into the tent, hands laid on it, and that ram was killed (29:19). Its blood was put on the tip of the right ear, right thumb, and right toes and the rest of the blood was thrown against the altar. Then the blood that was on the altar and the anointing oil were sprinkled on Aaron and his sons, wearing those garments. These beautiful garments are just covered in blood. What is the message? Blood is required for God to be with his people. The high priest must offer bloody sacrifices for God to be with his people. Further, every day a bull needed to offered (29:36) and two lambs (29:38-42) for atonement.
What is all of this doing? Notice the pictures in verses 41-46. God is pictured eating with his people (29:41) as this is a food and drink offering (communion meal). God is now able to meet with his people and speak with his people (29:42-43). Now God is able to dwell with his people (29:45-46).
These sacrifices that the high priest offered show us everything about Jesus and what his sacrifice means for us. “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12 ESV) Christ’s blood is what makes it possible for us to be in communion with God, for God to meet us, speak to us, and dwell with us. His blood was needed. The slaughtering of these animals showed the need for blood to cover sins so that God can be with us.
Articles In The Tabernacle (30:1-38)
Exodus 30 returns to describing the needed articles in the tabernacle. Chapter 30 begins with the altar of incense. This altar was placed in front of the curtain of the Most Holy Place. The burning on the altar would create a cloud of smoke that would fill the Most Holy Place. This replicated the experience on Mount Sinai as this smoke would be like the cloud of the glory of the Lord. Everyday this altar was to burn, morning and evening (30:7-8), putting smoke into the Most Holy Place, picturing God’s presence in that room. In verse 9 we see God specifically say not to offer unauthorized incense on it. This altar would be used also on the day of atonement when the high priest would go into that Most Holy Place and make atonement with the blood of the sin offering (30:10).
Next, God teaches about the need for atonement money in Exodus 30:11-16. When a census was taken then a half shekel was taken from each person as a ransom price which was given to the Lord. This atonement money would prevent a plague from striking the people for numbering them (30:12). The point was that this was a redemption price, a payment made to make atonement for your lives (30:15). The money was a reminder to the Israelites that atonement had been made for their lives. A price has to be paid for your life. The New Testament repeatedly pictures Jesus as the redemption price to save our lives.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. (Ephesians 1:7–8 NIV)
When we read these words about Jesus being our ransom and our redemption, this picture in Exodus is what we need to think about. God has saved our lives through Jesus. We are worthy of death for our sins but Jesus has redeemed our lives.
Next God gives directions regarding a bronze basin which was placed between the altar for sacrifices and the entrance to the tent. Aaron and his sons were to wash with water their hands and feet so that they may not die. This is a picture we are used to in the New Testament as God’s people need to be washed with water to live before the Lord.
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22 ESV)
The Sabbath (31:12-18)
After describing the oil and incense and the skilled craftsmen that will be used for the tabernacle’s construction, God gives the Sabbath law again. We should take note of how the Sabbath is emphasized in so many places in Exodus, emphasizing its importance. God already gave the Sabbath law when he spoke the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. But the laws are given again here. Verse 13 says that the Sabbath was to be a reminder for all generations that the Lord makes them holy. We will speak more to the Sabbath later in our study of Exodus when it comes up again. For now I want us to see that the Sabbath was a sign of the covenant that God made with Israel
Two Tablets (31:18)
The scene ends with stunning words. God gives to Moses the two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone. The language indicates that these are two copies of the covenant written in stone. Douglas Stuart makes the point well:
“The reason for the two tablets has nothing to do with the length of the commandments as opposed to the size of the tablets (as if it were necessary to employ two tablets to fit all the commandments onto them, half on one and half on the other). The full text of the Ten Words/Commandments was written on each tablet, one copy being God’s and one copy being Israel’s. This reflects the standard ancient Near Eastern treaty covenant practice of providing a copy of the covenant both to the vassal and to the sovereign. The fact that the two tablets were eventually placed together in the ark (Deut 10:5; 1 Kgs 8:9; Heb 9:4) further symbolized the ark’s role as a point of contact for God and his people, the place where his covenant relationship with them was symbolized by, among other things, the law, obedience to which linked Israel to Yahweh and Yahweh to Israel.” (New American Commentary, p. 656)
Also we see that the covenant was written in stone by the finger of God. We have seen the finger of God before in Exodus. Back in Exodus 8:19 the magicians declare to Pharaoh that these plagues were “the finger of God.” The power of God was on display in Egypt as the plagues wrecked the land. Now the power of God is on display in his words and in his laws. The commandments and this covenant was not just some laws. These were God’s laws written by the hand of God on these stone tablets.
The New Testament also communicates this message about the power of God’s word.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV)
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)
The word of God is the finger of God etching his laws on our hearts, rather than on stone tablets. This is the contrast of what would happen when the new covenant came. Listen to what the prophet Jeremiah declared regarding the covenant Christ would bring.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)
Did you see what God says that he would do with the new covenant? He would not write the law on stone tablets. Rather, God would write the law directly on their hearts. The finger of God would write his law on our hearts. How does God do this? God writes his powerful words on our hearts with his finger through Christ and what he has accomplished for us. When we see Jesus as our perfect high priest that stands holy to the Lord with our very names on his heart in God’s presence, the finger of God etches into our hearts a deeper love for him. When we see Jesus as our high priest who entered the presence of God with his own blood so that we can have communion with God, meet God, speak with God, and dwell with God, then the finger of God etches into our hearts a greater appreciation for him. When we see Jesus paying the atonement price, redeeming our lives from death, then the finger of God etches into our hearts a deeper devotion for him. When we see Jesus as our tabernacle through whom we have full access to God, tearing the curtain down that stood between us and him, then the finger of God etches into our hearts a zeal for a relationship with this gracious God. What we are seeing in Exodus is that Christ fulfills every picture. All the pictures of redemption concentrate our attention on Jesus. Jesus is the priest in the tabernacle and Christ is the sacrifice in the tabernacle. Or to say it as the apostle Paul does about Christ:
For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20 NRSV)