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If you asked people around you about the ark of the covenant, you would probably hear a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark—the 1981 movie starring Harrison Ford. If your audience is younger, that pop culture connection may not even come up in your conversation. But there is a lot more depth of meaning to the golden box flanked by angels than pictured in the film.

According to the Bible, the ark of the covenant was a piece of furniture located in the innermost compartment of the ancient tabernacle of the Israelites, erected in the desert after their escape from Egypt in the time of Moses. It was so sacred that those who desecrated it were punished or miraculously killed (2 Samuel 6:6, 7). That’s probably what inspired the special-effects-laden final destruction unleashed by the ark in the movie.

Among those who recognize the biblical origin of the ark of the covenant, most are likely to associate it with old Jewish rituals, having little application to life in the twenty-first century. But they would be missing the extraordinary meaning of the sanctuary and how it illuminates our understanding of God and His plan of salvation. Let’s take a closer look at this rich topic.

communing with God

First, let us stipulate that human nature has an innate need to worship. You don’t need to be a sociologist to notice the presence of religious practices in practically every culture, from Aboriginal Australians to Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Middle Easterners. Humanity also needs a way to worship.

The Bible teaches that God communed with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and ever since humans betrayed this relationship, both God and man have sought ways of coming back together. We find an attempt to make peace with God as early as the story of the sacrifices made by the first two brothers, Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2–5). The patriarchs built altars to God. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac until God Himself provided a ram (Genesis 22:1–18).

Later on, God directed the Israelites to build a place for communion with Him. “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8, NKJV). He not only told them to build it but also gave detailed instructions for its construction and for the services to be held there. (You can read these instructions in chapters 25–39 of Exodus and in the books of Leviticus and Numbers.)

All through the Bible, we see a history of humanity’s journey to restore a relationship with God. In describing the sanctuary, the Bible explains that it was God who took the initiative to make this relationship whole again. So, let’s learn more about the sanctuary.

what was the Israelite sanctuary like?

The instructions received by Moses described a mobile building structured with rods and covered with a tent knit from goat hair, with animal skins on top. It was 43 feet, 9 inches by 14 feet, 7 inches, with two compartments separated by curtains. The front compartment, the “Holy Place,” was 29 feet, 2 inches by 14 feet, 7 inches, and the second compartment, the “Most Holy Place,” was a square of 14 feet, 7 inches per side.*

If you had the privilege of seeing the sanctuary or tabernacle of the Israelites today, you probably would not be impressed by its size or outward appearance, but that would not be true of the inside. It had gold, blue, and scarlet curtains embroidered with gold cherubim. It also had several pieces of furniture made out of pure gold or covered in gold. Of course, the deeper message of the sanctuary was not expressed in its appearance but in the services that took place there.

Detailed instructions about the services and the personnel who served in the sanctuary were given by God. Aaron, Moses’ brother, was the first high priest (Exodus 28:1), the highest-ranking priest selected from the tribe of Levi, who was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham—the father of the Hebrew nation.

the message in the sanctuary services

In a nutshell, the sanctuary revealed God’s plan of salvation. Its rituals represented the path to God and His forgiveness.

The sanctuary services regularly included several categories of animal sacrifices, such as peace offerings, sin offerings, and consecration offerings. There were daily burnt offerings and accessory offerings, and there were special offerings connected to annual celebrations, such as Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement (which Jews today observe using the Hebrew name, Yom Kippur).

The sacrifice generally went like this: The sinner placed his hands on the head of the animal and killed it. The priest caught the blood and then sprinkled it upon the altar (a square wood-burning structure with a bronze grid and a sculpted bronze horn on each corner). The sinner skinned and cut up the animal, and the priests fueled the fire and placed pieces of the animal on the metal grid. The sacrifice was totally consumed on the altar (Leviticus 1:3–13).

This continual killing of animals and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar may offend our present-day sensibilities, but to an agricultural, nomadic Bronze Age society, it brought home the clear connection between sin and death. Acting in an unloving, hateful, or inconsiderate manner toward other human beings brought about the ending of a life.

Another important lesson of the sanctuary services is that salvation is made possible only by the transfer of our sin to Christ, our Substitute. This is a difficult concept for the mind to grasp, but it is at the center of God’s plan of salvation. The principle is that we can’t save ourselves. Our DNA is embedded with sinful tendencies. Our hearts are selfish. We are, by nature and inheritance, enemies of God. In biblical terms, we are all sinners (see Romans 3:23). Paul summarizes what is indeed the message of the sanctuary this way: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

The sacrifice of animals that took place in the sanctuary was symbolic; the blood of animals has no power whatsoever to bring us salvation. When the Israelites lost sight of the salvation message and began sacrificing the animals as payment for the privilege of sinning, God sent them a message through the prophet Isaiah:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—

what are they to me?” says the LORD.

“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,

of rams and the fat of fattened animals;

I have no pleasure

in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11).

What the sanctuary and its service did was reveal in very graphic ways the seriousness of sin, the need for confession, the holiness of God, and His intervention in human history to open a path to salvation for all of us. Yes, pop culture and social sciences may denounce religion as an outdated relic of past generations, but the reality is that human psychology has a hard time providing a solution for guilt, hopelessness, and the meaning of our lives.

symbols with deep meaning

The sanctuary teaches us the good news of the gospel in its primitive form. The main components of the sanctuary service were the priest, the altar of sacrifices, the sacrificial animals, the bronze basin, the showbread, the menorah (seven-branched candlestand), the altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant. These symbols represent the realities of salvation:

Jesus is our Priest, who works out our salvation before the universe. He is the Lamb of God, the only true and complete sacrifice for our sins. Jesus is the Bread of Life and the Light of the world. His words are like fragrant incense that rises to the presence of the Father with the prayers of His people.

Through its symbols, the sanctuary spoke of realities that transcended its moment in history. The New Testament shows that Jesus is the central Person in the plan of salvation, which the sanctuary represented. The book of Hebrews brings the point home when it tells us: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14–16).

the message lives on

Those words in Hebrews show how the message of the sanctuary should live on in our religious experience today. We have a heavenly Priest. We don’t need earthly ones. The Bible is very clear on this: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6). When we claim Him as our Savior, He takes us with Him into the very presence of the Father, something only the high priest of the earthly sanctuary was allowed to do once a year. There, in God’s presence, we are certain to find mercy and grace “in our time of need.”

The Christian church is called to keep Christ at the center of worship. Every sermon and every event should point to the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The path to salvation passes through Calvary, the place where the ultimate sacrifice for our sins took place. This truth is not complicated. The Bible says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And John takes a fatherly tone when he writes in the next chapter: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1, 2).

In the sanctuary, God has opened negotiations for peace between Him and us. His offer still stands. Will you accept His terms?

Miguel A. Valdivia is a pastor and an administrator at Pacific Press® Publishing Association. He writes from Nampa, Idaho.

* Francis D. Nichol, ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald®, 1976), 696–710.

God’s Gift of Mercy

by Miguel A. Valdivia
From the August 2023 Signs