Before we investigate the various pieces of furniture found in the Tabernacle and their typology, it is necessary that we first learn of those people whose lives were so bound to the service of the Tabernacle. Though any Israelite could enter the Outer Court, only a special number could go into the Tabernacle itself, and only one could enter The Most Holy Place and then only on a certain day. No ordinary Israelite could make an offering of any kind, for the practice and duties of the Tabernacle were permitted only by a select order. Only a designated group were allowed to pitch the Tabernacle and only a few could actually touch the furniture. These were the ministers of the Tabernacle, and they were as significant to the function of it as the furniture and vessels.
We find the most important of these ministers mentioned right in the midst of God's building instructions for the Tabernacle - the priests (Exodus 28:1). The High Priest was so significant to the Tabernacle that special clothing was ordained by God which was designated in Exodus 39:1 as "clothes of service". The other group of ministers are not mentioned until the Book of Numbers when the Israelites were ready to leave Mt. Sinai - the Levites (Numbers 1:50). In this lesson we shall endeavor to understand the role these ministers played in the service of the Tabernacle and what truths may be learned about our approach to the God of Heaven. Our understanding of our position before God can benefit greatly by a better understanding of those people who had such a peculiar position in the dwelling place of God.
The very first thing of which we must have a right understanding is who these ministers were and the meaning of their titles.
Let us consider the larger of the groups first, the Levites (at the time of Moses there were 22,000 males one month old and above - Numbers 3:39). Levi was the third son of Jacob and these were his descendants. According to Numbers 3:12-13, God chose the Levites as a substitute for the firstborn who had became God's at the first Passover (according to Numbers 3:41, even the cattle of the Levites were substituted for the firstborn cattle of Israel).
The Levites were further subdivided according to the three sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. These three main groups were each assigned specific duties. The children of Kohath had the duty of carrying the furniture and instruments of the Tabernacle when the camp was moved (Number 4:15). However, they were not permitted to come in contact with these vessels - there were staves inserted into rings attached to the furniture by which the Kohathites could bear them. The children of Gershon were to carry all of the curtains and coverings used for both the Tabernacle and the Outer Court (Numbers 4:25-26). Finally, the children of Merari would carry the boards, bars, sockets, and pillars (Numbers 31-32).
What is a priest? Hebrews 5:1 explains that the priest is "ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins". We may learn also from the rebellion of Korah who was not satisfied with his ministry as a Levite of the family of Kohath. Moses told Korah and his followers that God would distinguish the priests from those who were not priests by showing "who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him" (Numbers 16:5). We may understand then that a priest is a man chosen by God to share in a special relationship with Him and to act as a representative for the people by presenting and receiving what properly belongs to God.
With respect to the Tabernacle, the priests were the only group allowed inside (Numbers 17:13-18:7), the only ones who could touch the furniture (Number 4:15-20), and the only ones allowed to present the offerings to God. God chose Aaron and his descendants out of the Levites to be His priests.
The definition and privileges of a priest clearly capture the future state of man. Here we find a group of people whose life revolved around the service of God and who enjoyed a special fellowship with God. God had promised Israel that if they would keep His covenant, He would make them "a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6). Any Israelite could have looked at the priest and understood to some degree their future life in eternity. For the Christian, we too may see our future state for we have been made priests unto God (1 Peter 2:5, Revelation 1:6).
At the time of the Tabernacle, God made Aaron the high priest. As we shall see, the high priest had special garments to wear and special duties to perform. The high priest was the only one allowed to enter The Most Holy Place and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. There was to only be one high priest at a time (although this was not the case for a short time during the reign of David).
There is so much to learn from the high priest and much will be said in future lessons, but let us draw some general conclusions. It must have occurred to the Israelites that only one man out of the whole nation could enter that place in which their God was. Furthermore, there was an awful imperfection in this for that one man was subject to death. Surely there was a need for a high priest without sin who would never die. This no doubt offered a glimpse of the coming Messiah for we know from much of Hebrews that the high priest was a type of Christ (see Hebrews 3:1 for example).
Another great lesson can be found in the fact that the priests were not chosen because of some merit of their own but because of their descent from Aaron. No Israelite could enter into that special fellowship with God because they wanted to or because of their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The priests were an elect group ordained by God. This is a type of the election by God of those who are to receive eternal life - they must be a descendant of Jesus, The High Priest. How wonderful to know that anyone can be born into the family of Jesus by simply putting their trust in Christ for their salvation (1 John 5:1).
Though the priests in general had special garments, "for glory and for beauty", they were nothing compared to the clothing of the high priest as described in Exodus 28:5 - 39. The high priest was distinguished with the following items:
The robe was one piece of material, totally blue in color with a hole for the head. At the bottom hem hung golden bells in between pomegranates in the colors of blue, purple, and scarlet. The bells were to signal the high priest's presence when he was in The Most Holy Place.
Over the robe the priest wore an ephod (an outer garment like a vest) made of fine twined linen with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet. The ephod consisted of a front and back piece, which were connected by 2 "shoulderpieces". These "shoulderpieces" were made of an onyx stone set in gold and each stone had 6 of the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. Thus the high priest would bear the names of the children of Israel upon his shoulders "for a memorial". This could have been a memorial to God or served as a reminder to the high priest of those he represented. The ephod was secured around the body by a "curious girdle" (i.e. a belt).
The breastplate of judgement was a kind of pouch made of the same material as the ephod. It hung from the ephod by golden chains fastened to the "shoulderpieces". It was square in shape being 1 span by 1 span (a span is the distance from the outstretched thumb to the little finger which was approximately half a cubit or 9 inches). On the front of the breastplate were 12 different precious stones arranged in 4 rows of 3 columns. Each stone had the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Inside the breastplate were the "Urim and the Thummim" which many believe were stones used to determine the will of God.
That only the high priest had the Urim and Thummim was a picture of his capacity to present clear revelations and unerring judgements from God. Again, the Israelites could have gained another glimpse at the character of the coming Messiah for "no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him" (Matthew 11:27). Perhaps the Samaritans had come to some of understanding of this since the woman at the well said, "I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things" (John 4:25).
The mitre was a turban or hat made of linen which had a plate of gold attached to it by blue lace. Engraved on this plate were the words HOLINESS TO THE LORD.
From the descriptions of these garments much more could be said and speculated upon, but there are a couple of simple truths that ought to have been very obvious to any who saw the high priest. First, the representative character of the high priest is quite noticeable with the names of those he represented on both the shoulders and the chest and this pointed to role of the Messiah as mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 7:25-26). In addition we may note that the same colors and materials (blue, purple, scarlet, fine twined linen, and gold) used in the Tabernacle and the door to the Outer Court were also used in the garments of the high priest. Anyone who looked at the Tabernacle and then saw the high priest would have clearly understood that here was one who not only had access to the Tabernacle but also was in a sense a part of the Tabernacle. This surely would have brightened the image of all that the high priest was in the minds of the Israelites.
In Leviticus 21, God outlined some further qualifications for the priests.
In verses 16 - 24, God restricted the priesthood to only those who had no bodily defects. Thus the blind, the lame, etc. could not be a priest. This in no way indicates that God does not love the blind and the lame, but bodily defects are a visible sign of the sin resulting from Adam and the priests were to maintain an image of perfect holiness.
In verses 1 - 15, God gave several external restrictions on both the priests in general and the high priest. The priests were to avoid being defiled through contact with the dead except in the case of a near kin. Death is so connected with sin and again the priests were to maintain a state of holiness. They were forbidden to make themselves bald or disfigure their beard as in times of mourning. As God's representatives, their appearance affected His name and reputation. Finally, they could not marry a divorced woman or a woman with a bad reputation. The high priest had further restrictions from contact with any dead including his father or mother; and he could only marry a virgin.
These demands upon the priests surely present the idea that those who come nigh to God must be absolutely Holy and emphasize the seriousness and responsibility of that position (see vs. 9). The visible emblem upon the mitre of the high priest blazing the message "HOLINESS TO THE LORD" was to be equally perceptible in the priest's life and character. Yet, if no one else understood this at least the priests should have, that such demands could never be fully possible for the seed of Adam and therefore some change was necessary for one to truly be a priest of God, a minister in the Eternal Tabernacle.