A few years ago, I had an operation on my shoulder. I had been experiencing a lot of pain for about four years. After trying everything from physical therapy to acupuncture, I went to an orthopedic specialist. He sent me off for an X-ray and ultrasound. After looking at the photographs for a few seconds, he began telling me what was wrong. He said that my clavicle had a spur on the end that was rubbing on the acromion. Also, there was a small tear in the supraspinatus from the scapula.

At this point, he must have noticed the blank stare on my face. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. The specialist reached across his desk and picked up a model of a shoulder. It was made up of plastic bones, such as the clavicle, acromion, scapula, and upper humerus. He began his explanation again, this time showing me where each part was located on the shoulder model. Now that I could “see” the bones he was referring to, the fact that there was a spur at the end of my clavicle that needed to be ground back to relieve the pain began to make sense.

The model also had soft plastic joints and synthetic muscular tissue. The specialist was able to demonstrate how some of my muscle had pulled away from the bone. With the aid of the model, I understood exactly what he was talking about and was able to make an informed decision as to whether I wanted to proceed with the operation he recommended.

God’s model

Several thousand years ago, God had a message He wanted to share with the world. He wanted everyone to know that no matter what they might have done or not done, He loved each one a lot.

But how much is “a lot”?

“A lot” meant that God Himself would become one with us so that He could personally understand the hurt sin had caused the world and empathize with us. Not only that, He also would become the cure for the sin problem, even including death on the cross.

But how could God impart this message of love and forgiveness to a nomadic people living in the second millennium BC, who had been slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years? To people who had very little formal education? To people who were familiar with the many gods of the Egyptians but not so familiar with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? To people who knew sacrifice only as a way to appease those many gods but had very little knowledge of the One God who was freely just, gracious, and loving?

God explained Himself to these people by telling Moses to build a practical model of His “plan of salvation.” This model illustrated the way God would one day reconcile the world to Himself (see Colossians 1:19, 20).

Of course, God had used other methods as well. For instance, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the sacrificial ram that gave up its life for Isaac illustrates salvation in story form (see Genesis 22:1–19). When God destroyed an evil world with the waters of the Flood, He saved faithful Noah and his family in a boat we call the ark. In a sense, Noah represented the “savior” of the world, for without him and his ark, humanity would have become extinct on the earth. Thus, Noah became a living demonstration of the end of the world and the beginning of God’s eternal world (see Revelation 21:3–5).

However, for the Israelites recently delivered from slavery in Egypt, God chose to use a tabernacle, a sacrifice, and a priest—all of which the slaves were familiar with—to create a model that would help the people understand His plan to save the world from evil, pain, and death. We call it “the tabernacle service.”

the tabernacle

God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle so that He (God) could dwell among His people (Exodus 25:8). The radical concept of a “holy place” needed a concrete example. The tabernacle became such an example. It gave the people something special, something visual, something spiritual, and something very practical. The services surrounding the tabernacle made the worship of God more meaningful for those people at that time.

Similarly, Jesus was God dwelling among His people. He revealed the love of God by entering our physical world of time and space. He was born of a woman named Mary and lived among us in a world far different from the one He had created. The Bible very appropriately calls Jesus “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; see also Isaiah 7:14).

the sacrifice

As the priest entered the courtyard of the tabernacle, the first item he saw was a sacrificial altar (Leviticus 1:11) made of acacia wood and overlaid with bronze. The priests sacrificed various animals on this altar, both for their own sins and for the sins of others. Among the animals that were sacrificed were rams, goats, bullocks, and doves. In some cases, depending on their sin and their financial resources, the people were instructed to bring flour to burn on the altar (see Leviticus 5:1–19). Only animals without any blemish or the very best flour were accepted. The person who had sinned placed his or her hands on the animal’s head, ceremonially transferring his or her sin to it. They then had to kill the animal, and parts of it were burned on the altar.

This sacrifice was far from being an appeasement for an angry god. Instead, it was an illustration of God’s love for us. It showed how Jesus would one day offer Himself as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. We are made right with God when we accept the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf and submit ourselves to Him daily as our Savior.

the priest

God instructed Moses to bring his brother, Aaron, and Aaron's sons to the entrance of the tabernacle. They were to be washed with water, clothed in holy garments, and specially anointed for service. They were set apart for the special work of mediating on behalf of the people before God and ministering on behalf of God to the people (Exodus 40:12–15). It was their responsibility to ensure that the morning and evening sacrifices burned continually. This was a very practical display of God’s grace and forgiveness to everyone in the surrounding camp.

Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and he could do so only once each year during the ceremony of Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—the cleansing from sin of the sanctuary, the camp, and all the people.

There is also a sanctuary in heaven, where Jesus today ministers on our behalf before God (see Hebrews 8:1, 2). Because of this, we are able to approach God boldly, knowing that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have an Advocate—a Priest who acts on our behalf.

Many people today struggle with such words as justification, reconciliation, and substitution and what those words mean theologically and spiritually to them personally. Like the specialist and his model of my shoulder, the Old Testament tabernacle service helped people thousands of years ago understand Jesus, their Savior, their Priest, and their Substitute. And by studying this ancient sanctuary and its services, we can still learn valuable lessons today about God, Jesus, and the plan of salvation.

Rodney Woods is a pastor, church administrator, and discipleship ministries leader writing from Australia.

Salvation Illustrated

by Rodney Woods
From the April 2024 Signs