The Sanctuary on Earth

List of Studies

1. Introduction

Anciently, God painted, in the form of the earthly Sanctuary, a picture of atonement for sin.  He did this both for the people of the time, and for all subsequent peoples to study.

The furnishings and rituals of the Sanctuary (also called the Tabernacle) were designed to teach and illustrate all aspects of the Atonement, which would, in due time, be acted out on Earth and in Heaven. 

We begin with an overview of the earthly Sanctuary

2. The Sanctuary - overview

Ex 25:8  And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. 

So great is God’s love for mankind, so interested is He in their salvation, that God chose to dwell amongst mankind, that He might be actively involved in their redemption.

2.1 A representation of Heavenly things

God Himself gave instruction for the Sanctuary to be a model of the Sanctuary in Heaven.

Ex 25:9  According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern [Strong’s H8403, resemblance, model] of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it. 

The earthly Sanctuary was a representation of the Sanctuary in Heaven, both in terms of its compartments and furnishings, and its services (see study: ‘The Sanctuary in Heaven’):

He 8:5  Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern [Strong’s G5179, resemblance, model] shewed to thee in the mount. 

God gave Israel an object lesson in His great plan of salvation, modelled on the true Sanctuary in Heaven - He wanted all to have a knowledge of both the cost of salvation and of the final reward.

2.2 The two compartments of the Sanctuary – the Holy and the Most Holy

In this section we give a summary of the two compartments in the Sanctuary.  They are discussed in detail later in sections 4 and 5.

He 9:2,3  For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. 

3  And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; 

In The Holy each day, the evening and morning ministrations were conducted (the daily) - see section 3.1. 

Also, sacrificial blood was sprinkled in the Holy before the second vail - see section 3.2.

Exo 27:21  In the tabernacle of the congregation without the vail, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the LORD: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel. 

He 9:6  Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. 

In The Most Holy dwelled the presence of God.  Once a year only, on the great Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Most Holy to make atonement for all Israel.  See section 3.3, and study: ‘The Day of Atonement’.

He 9:7  But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: 

Ex 26:33  And thou shalt hang up the vail under the taches, that thou mayest bring in thither within the vail the ark of the testimony: and the vail shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy. 

There were in fact two veils.  The first separated the Holy from the outer court.  The second separated the Holy from the Most Holy.

2.3 God’s way is in the Sanctuary

Ps 77:13  Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God? 

In a number of places we are exhorted to walk in God’s ways (e.g. De 30:16), which are defined in 1Ki 2:3 as “to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies”.  The Sanctuary was designed to keep God’s people ever mindful of these things.

However, the most important aspect of God’s ‘way’ in the Sanctuary, in fact its main purpose, was to teach that atonement for the sin of the guilty was by the blood of an innocent sacrifice, discussed as follows.

3. The Sacrifices - the heart of the Sanctuary

3.1 The Continual/Daily Sacrifice  (Strong’s H8548, continual, daily)

Nu 28:3,4,6  And thou shalt say unto them, This is the offering made by fire which ye shall offer unto the LORD; two lambs of the first year without spot day by day, for a continual [Strong’s H8548] burnt offering. 

4  The one lamb shalt thou offer in the morning, and the other lamb shalt thou offer at even; … 

6  It is a continual [H8548] burnt offering, which was ordained in mount Sinai for a sweet savour, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD. 

The continual sacrifice kept the people ever mindful of their sinful condition, and of their need of redemption.

The blood of the continual sacrifices was smeared on the horns of the alter of burnt offering (section 6.1).  The shedding of the blood separated sin from the people, transferring their sin to the Sanctuary.  The sin was not eliminated but held over for later cleansing on the annual great Day of Atonement (see study: 'The Day of Atonement').

The sacrifices in the Sanctuary never ceased until the Cross. Sin had to be atoned for, in symbol, without ceasing.

These continual/daily sacrifices pointed to Christ’s continual ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary (see study: ‘The Sanctuary in Heaven’,3.2) where He interceded constantly for sinners.  

As Christ was without sin, the sacrificial animals that represented Him had to be ‘without spot’.   

The animals representing Christ were sacrificed a countless number of times, but could not take away sin (He 10:4).  The sacrifice of Christ however, atoned for sin in actuality (not in symbol) and thus He needed to be sacrificed once only - it is sufficient for ever:

He 10:10-12  By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 

11  And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: 

12  But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; 

3.2 Other sacrifices

In addition to the morning and evening sacrifices, many sacrifices were required:

Nu 29:6  Beside the burnt offering of the month, and his meat offering, and the daily [H8548] burnt offering, and his meat offering, and their drink offerings, according unto their manner, for a sweet savour, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD.

3.3 Individual sacrifice for sin (Leviticus chapter 4)

In addition to the Continual sacrifice, individuals were required to bring a sacrifice of their own to the Sanctuary - for a priest and for the whole congregation: a bullock; for a ruler: a kid; for an individual common person: a kid, a lamb, or a dove (according to means). 

Individuals had to lay their hands on the sacrifice to transfer their sin, then kill it themselves (Le 4:29).  

In the case of a priest or the whole congregation the blood was sprinkled before the vail in the outer compartment of the Sanctuary seven times (the number of perfection), and smeared on the horns of the Altar of Incense. Priests had responsibility to be an example to the people - their sin, therefore, needed to be dealt with very thoroughly. 

The blood for a ruler or for a common individual was not sprinkled before the vail - their responsibility was far lower because they did not have the learning or the access to scriptures as did the priests (who were included in the whole congregation). 

In every case, however, the shedding of blood of the sacrifice transferred the sin to the Sanctuary. 

The officiating priest then burned the individual’s sacrifice on the Altar of Burnt Offering, which represented a complete sacrifice - see section 6.1.

Note.  This section has given a brief overview of the Sanctuary sacrifices for sin.  Leviticus chapters 1-7 give an extensive and detailed view of all the sacrifices. 

3.4 The annual sacrifice

Once a year, the Sanctuary was cleansed of the accumulated sin transferred by the continual sacrifice.  This occurred on the great Day of Atonement, when the High Priest made the final atonement for sin for that year (the Day of Atonement is addressed in full in study: ‘The Day of Atonement’.)

Lev 16:34  And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year. And he did as the LORD commanded Moses. 

This was a sacrifice for the sin of all Israel - a sacrifice which was acceptable for the time.  As a result, God acknowledged the nation of Israel as His people.

At the conclusion of the annual sacrifice, the Atonement for sin for the year was complete.  In the Daily and annual sacrifices, Israel had double assurance of salvation.

The annual sacrifice pointed to Christ’s final ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary (see study: ‘The Sanctuary in Heaven’,3.4) in which He makes the final atonement for sin.  

3.5 Summary: to the Cross and after

In the earthly Sanctuary the death of every sacrifice pointed forward to Christ’s one Sacrificial death upon the Cross.

Before the Cross, the sprinkling of the blood of every earthly sacrifice pointed forward to Christ’s Ministry after the Cross, in which He offers His own Blood for every repentant sinner (Re 1:5):

He 10:12,14  But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; 

14  For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

The sacrifices in the earthly Sanctuary foreshadowed the entire means for Salvation in Christ.

On completion of the earthly sacrifices for each year, the sin of God’s people was eradicated (in figure) for that one year only.

On completion of Christ's Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary, the sin of the redeemed will be eradicated for all eternity (see study: ‘The cleansing of the Heavenly Sanctuary’,4).

4. The Contents of the Most Holy (inner compartment)

4.1 The Ark of the Covenant

Ex 25:10  And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. 

Ex 25:16  And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee. 

He 9:3,4  And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; 

4 which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded , and the tables of the covenant

Paul places the pot of manna and Aaron’s rod in the Ark of the Covenant, while the Old Testament places these before the Ark:

The manna represented mankind’s dependence on God’s sustenance, and on God's deliverance in times of extremity.  A pot of manna was ‘laid up’ before the Testimony (Ex 16:32-34), to be kept (v34).

Aaron’s rod that budded (Nu 17:8-10) was a reminder that the Aaronic Priesthood alone was ordained by God, and a reminder of new life in Christ, our true High Priest (prefigured by Aaron). The rod was kept before the Testimony (v10).

These differences (see note in section 4.3) are not critical to the truth of the Covenant and what it represented: salvation in the Messiah to come.

The tables of the Covenant are the stone tables of the Ten Commandments - see study: ‘Law 1: written on stone’,2.  The 'Ark of the Covenant' (He 9:4 above) and the 'Ark of the Testimony' (Ex 25:22 below) are one and the same.

Note. The Covenant itself is addressed in study: ‘The Covenant of Grace’.

4.2 The Mercy Seat

Ex 25:17-20  And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. 

18  And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. 

19  And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. 

20  And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. 

Ex 25:21,22  And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. 

22  And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel. 

The presence of God resided between the two golden Cherubims on the Mercy Seat - the wings of the cherubim were folded to cover the presence of God.

Ex 26:34  And thou shalt put the mercy seat upon the ark of the testimony in the most holy place.

The Mercy Seat was placed on top of the Ark of the Covenant, i.e. above the Ten Commandments, which were placed inside the Ark.  

Thus God’s mercy in Christ is above the requirement of the Law that the sinner should die.  

4.3 The golden censer

This was used to burn incense in the Most Holy on the Day of Atonement.  

There is puzzle here: Paul places the golden censer within the Most Holy (He 9:4), but on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest took coals from the golden alter of incense and put them into the golden censer to burn incense to cause a cloud that would shield himself from the presence of God in the Most Holy (Le 16:12,13). 

If the High Priest had to first enter into the Most Holy to get the golden censer he would have been destroyed by the unshielded presence of God.  

Paul is probably referring to the High Priest using the censer in the Most Holy on the Day of Atonement, rather than it being kept there.

Note. Paul, never having been the High Priest, had never seen the contents of the Most Holy for Himself - hence the disparity between Paul’s account and the Old Testament placement of the golden censer, and also of the manna and Aaron’s rod (section 4.1).

4.4 The book of the Law (of Moses)

De 31:24-26  And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, 

25  That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, 

26  Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee. 

The Law of Moses constituted the instructions and regulations for all the sacrifices and ceremonies that God required.  They were written down in a book that was placed at the side of the Ark (see study: ‘Law: Ceremonial’).

5. The contents of the Holy (outer compartment)

5.1 The Altar of Incense

Ex 30:1  And thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon: of shittim wood shalt thou make it. 

Ex 30:3  And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about. 

Ex 30:6  And thou shalt put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with thee. 

Ex 30:7,8 And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. 

8  And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations. 

Ps 141:2  Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. 

Re 8:3,4  And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. 

4  And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. 

The Altar of Incense was used daily to represent prayers for mercy ascending to Heaven. 

The sweet incense represented how pleasing to God are the prayers of His people. 

The horns of the alter represent power - the power of intercessory prayer.

Ex 30:10  And Aaron shall make an atonement upon the horns of it once in a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonements: once in the year shall he make atonement upon it throughout your generations: it is most holy unto the LORD. 

Once a year on the great Day of Atonement, blood was smeared on the horns of the altar as an atonement, representing the saving power of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice.

This atonement is addressed further in study: ‘The Day of Atonement’,3.7.

5.2 The Table of Shewbread

Ex 25:30  And thou shalt set upon the table shewbread before me alway. 

Nu 4:7  And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal: and the continual [H8548] bread shall be thereon: 

In the Shewbread we have the symbol of man's continued and unbroken dependence upon God for life. There were twelve loaves, one for each tribe of Israel (Le 24:5,6). 

The shewbread pointed forward to Christ, the Bread of Life Jn 6:35,47,48)

5.3 The Candlestick of Seven branches - the Menorah

Ex 25:31,32  And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same.

 32  And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side: 

Ex 25:37  And thou shalt make the seven lamps thereof: and they shall light the lamps thereof, that they may give light over against it. 

Ex 27:20,21  And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always (H8548). 

21 In the tabernacle of the congregation without the vail, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the LORD: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel. 

Whether all seven lamps burned all the time is not clear. Two texts suggest that the lamps were lit in the evening and extinguished in the morning.

1Sa 3:3  And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep; 

Ex 30:8  And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even…

Yet we read in Ex 27:20,21 (above) that the lamps were to burn continually (morning and evening, a whole day, see Genesis chapter 1).

Fresh olive oil of the purest quality was burned to light the lamps. The oil represents the pure indwelling Holy Spirit, without whom the light of the faithful cannot shine.

The light represents that God’s people were to be a light to the world (Mt 5:14), pointing people to Christ, who is the purpose of the Sanctuary, and the true Light of the World (Jn 8:12; 9:5).

The seven-branched Menorah symbolizes the creation of the world in seven days, with the centre light representing the Sabbath, the crowning day of creation, sanctified and blessed by God for mankind - it is a reminder that mankind is God’s Creation.

6. The contents of the courtyard

6.1 Altar of Burnt Offering

Ex 40:6  And thou shalt set the altar of the burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation. 

Ex 40:29  And he put the altar of burnt offering by the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation, and offered upon it the burnt offering and the meat offering; as the LORD commanded Moses. 

The Altar of Burnt Offering stood in the courtyard of the tabernacle, i.e. not inside the veiled compartments.  This rendered the sin sacrifices visible to the whole congregation.

A burnt offering was a complete offering for the remission of sin, representing the complete offering of Christ upon the Cross, once, for all. 

When a sacrifice was made, some of the blood was smeared on the horns of the alter of burnt offering, and the remainder of the blood was poured out at the base of the alter (of burnt offering):

Le 4:29-31  And the priest shall take of the blood thereof with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar. 

Le 4:31  And he shall take away all the fat [Strong’s H2459, the choicest part] thereof, as the fat is taken away from off the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savour unto the LORD; and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him. 

The Priest was to burn the fat, i.e. the choicest part (see Ge 4:4, and also Ps 81:16;147:14 in which H2459 is translated as 'finest') of the offering.  

This represented the offering of the sinless Christ, the choicest part, as atonement for sin.  

The 'sweet savour' of the burning fat represents God’s pleasure in the Atonement.

6.2 The Laver - a washbowl

Ex 30:18  Thou shalt also make a laver of brass, and his foot also of brass, to wash withal: and thou shalt put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein. 

Ex40:7  And thou shalt set the laver between the tent of the congregation and the altar, and shalt put water therein. 

Ex 30:19-21 For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: 

20  When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: 

21  So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations. 

The priests had to wash their hands and feet (symbolizing deeds, and conduct [path] in life) that they may be purified before ministering in the Sanctuary. 

Le 1:9  But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD. 

Le 1:13  But he shall wash the inwards and the legs with water: and the priest shall bring it all, and burn it upon the altar: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD. 

The Priests had to wash the inward parts of the sacrifice of burnt offering, indicating the inward purity of Christ.  The legs also were washed, symbolizing the purity of Christ’s life (His pure walk).  

These washings also served as a reminder of the purity of life required of the penitent sinner, that is the placing of one’s faith in Christ, manifested in one’s abhorrence of sin.

6.3 The white linen fence (Ex 27:9-16)

The whole of the Sanctuary complex was surrounded by a white linen fence.  This represented the purity of Christ’s Righteousness that ‘surrounds’ repentant, forgiven sinners, separating them from the corruption of the world. 

7. Summary

The earthly Sanctuary is a practical lesson in the salvation of all mankind.  By means of the Sanctuary all God’s saving ways were open to view.  It pointed ancient Israel forward to the one true sacrifice of the Lamb of God (Christ), and then to Christ’s final saving ministry.

Today, although we do not practice the sacrifices and ceremonies of the earthly Sanctuary (they have been superseded by the Cross), it teaches us the same lessons as it did anciently, opening our understanding of the deep things of salvation.  

A thorough knowledge of the earthly Sanctuary is therefore very important for us today.

List of Studies