The tabernacle and temple were alike the meeting place between God and people. Indeed, the tabernacle, which was at first a moveable structure, found a permanent home in Solomon’s temple.
But, actually, the story begins not in Exodus but at the beginning of Genesis. As many scholars have observed, the garden of Eden was itself a kind of temple, for it to was the meeting place between God and his people. Not surprising, then, that there are so many allusions to the creation narrative in the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 25ff.
The tabernacle and temple were not only meeting places, but also places of sacrifice. This theme, too, pre-dates the construction of the tabernacle.
When the tabernacle was built, many instructions were given for the materials to be used, the ark, the table, the lampstand, the tabernacle itself, the altar of burnt offering, the courtyard, oil for the lampstand, the priestly garments, the consecration of the priests, the altar of incense, atonement money, basin for washing, anointing oil, and incense (Ex 25-30).
God could be approached only in the Most Holy Place, once a year (on the Day of Atonement), by the high priest, and only after blood sacrifices were offered which covered his and the people’s sins, the blood being sprinkled on the ark of the covenant.
Once settled in the Promised Land, the tabernacle remains the central place where God meets with his people. However, there are serious lapses, as when the Philistines steal the ark of the covenant from the tabernacle, supposing that they have captured Israel’s God.
In 2 Samuel 6-7 we find David, who has been king over the southern two tribes, now becoming king over all 12 tribes, and making Jerusalem his capital. The ark of the covenant is brought there, and is eventually incorporated into the temple that is built by Solomon. Thus three critical themes come together: Jerusalem, the Davidic dynasty, and the tabernacle/temple.
Much of the design of the tabernacle and the temple was to teach God’s people that they may approach him only by the means that he has ordained – by the sacrifices that he commanded, by the priest that he has appointed, by the shed blood that he prescribes. All of these point forward to a better – indeed, a perfect – sacrifice that will deal finally with sin and its consequences.
But the nation becomes increasingly degenerate. First the northern, and then the southern, tribes are taken off into captivity. How could the Davidic dynasty be thus overcome, the holy city sacked and its temple destroyed? How, and where, would God now meet with his people? In the dark days spoken of in Ezekiel 8-11, it is made clear that although God will abandon Jerusalem, God says to those in exile, far away, “I will be a sanctuary to them” (Eze 11:16). In other words, the real sanctuary is not in a building, but it is where God is.
Finally, God calls his people back to Jerusalem. The temple is rebuilt under Nehemiah, and the city itself is rebuilt and repopulated. There is much emphasis on covenant renewal, on restoring the means that God had ordained whereby he and his people would be reconciled.
When we come to the New Testament, we hear Jesus referring to his own body as ‘this temple’ (Jn 2:19-22). He is the ultimate meeting place between God and sinful people. He is the One to whom all the old trajectories were pointing. He is priest and sacrifice. His flesh is the veil. His broken body is the shattered temple that will rise on the third day to become the real meeting place between God and sinners.
But if Christ is the ultimate temple, then his people, those who are ‘in Christ’, are by extension the temple too. Even as individuals they are the temple of the Holy Spirit, in-dwelt by God himself.
The book of Revelation develops many of the temple themes. In the last two chapters, the vision new heaven and new earth is transformed into a vision of the New Jerusalem. And John says, ‘I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:22). Mixing his metaphors in the usual style of apocalyptic writes, John also describes the New Jerusalem as the Bride of Christ.
This new Jerusalem is described as a perfect cube – and the only cube in the Old Testament is the Most Holy Place. So, the new Jerusalem does not contain the temple, it is the temple – the dwelling place of God with his people. Eden is restored, only it becomes something much better. For, in the words of Isaac Watts:
‘In Christ the tribes of Adam boast/More blessings than their father lost.’
(Based on this interview with D.A. Carson)