The Representation of the Things in the Heavens
An address given at the 1998 Plumstead Conference
Exodus 25:8-9; Hebrews 8:2; 9:11, 23
When we look at the tabernacle in Exodus chapter 25, we see that it represents two entirely different though not separate things. The tabernacle in the desert, the habitation of God in the midst of His people, is a figurative representation of things in the heavens. It is the visible representation of invisible things, and in the book of Revelation which we are considering at this conference we have many allusions to these spiritual, invisible and immaterial realities. That is one thing: the tabernacle points on high and shows us something which is invisible.
The tabernacle itself is always styled in Hebrews ‘the tabernacle’, even where it is really the temple which is in view, to show that everything which is here on earth passes away (Heb. 8:5; 9:21; 13:10). It is ‘the representation and shadow of heavenly things’ (Heb. 8:5), and this may point to the fact that beyond the created heavens, which the tabernacle represents, there is something more than a tabernacle – the Father’s house, which is not in view when we look at the tabernacle or the temple. The Father’s house, the eternal dwelling place of God, is not of this creation, whereas the tabernacle speaks of the created heavens in the midst of which is the governmental and judgmental throne of God. And that is the centre or highest point of creation, where God presides in government and judgment over His creation. When the Lord says, ‘In my Father’s house there are many abodes’, He speaks of something which He only mentions once in this sense. He speaks of the temple as His Father’s house once as well, in John 2, but in John 14 He speaks about His Father’s house where no man has ever been, but where He has gone as the glorified Man to introduce us there. That will never be called a tabernacle because it is the eternal dwelling place of God, and will, once we are there, also be our eternal dwelling place of bliss, blessing and glory. What we have here in the tabernacle is rather what God wants to show us about the heavenly places. It is only by these ‘figurative representations of the things in the heavens’, as J N Darby has translated it, that invisible things can be explained to human beings (Heb. 9:23).
We have in connection with the tabernacle the brazen altar and the brazen laver which later on in the temple is called the sea. Then inside the tabernacle we have the golden altar of incense, the table of shewbread and the lamp-stand. Within the holy of holies we have the ark of the testimony, the ark of the covenant of God. These things speak of heavenly realities. They are visible, material representations, of spiritual, invisible things. We cannot say that they are only thoughts because they speak of principles and facts that have always played a role in the heart and the mind of God, and will continue to do so to eternity.
The Lampstand and the Table of Shewbread
It is interesting that in Hebrews and the book of Revelation we do not have a description of all the things found in the tabernacle. Firstly there is no counterpart to the lampstand. We have an allusion to it in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 but there the seven lamps in the midst of which the Lord walks are not in heaven but on earth, and they are not for light in the sanctuary but in the world.
Similarly, in the New Testament description of heavenly realities, there is no counterpart to the table of shewbread. The twelve loaves of bread upon it were a continual reminder to God of the twelve tribes of Israel, who were His people on earth at that time. There could not be and there was no representation of the unity of the body of Christ in the Old Testament. One explanation why this is lacking is that when the unity of the body actually exists no representation of it is needed. Here on earth the people of God, both the earthly people and the heavenly people, have hardly ever been visible as a whole company. Israel was subjugated by Assyria and Babylon, and have been scattered all over the world, and what do we see of the heavenly people of God, the assembly, now? Nevertheless, God sees the unity of the assembly, the unity formed by the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in each member and in the whole of the body of Christ.
The Brazen Altar
The first thing the Israelites saw when they came to the gate of the court was the brazen altar and this altar is mentioned in Revelation 8: ‘And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and much incense was given to Him, that he might give efficacy to the prayers of all saints at the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense went up with the prayers of the saints, out of the hand of the angel before God. And the angel took the censer, and filled it from the fire of the altar, and cast it on the earth’ (vv. 3-5). There is reference to ‘the golden altar, ‘which was before the throne’, but the altar at which the angel stood, and from which He filled the censer with fire, was the brazen altar.
This altar on which the offerings were sacrificed to God speaks of the place where God’s judgment has been poured out. It is sometimes called the type of the cross and Scripture itself calls it, ‘the table of the Lord’ (Mal. 1:12). What does this show us about heavenly things? Firstly, that the thought of the work of the Lord Jesus on the cross at Calvary was in the heart of God and had a place before Him in heaven from all eternity. The brazen altar was the place where the Lord Jesus, the guiltless One, bore the full, righteous and true judgment of sinners. The time came when this judgment was executed on earth at Calvary, but it is a truth that stands for eternity that the judgment of God in righteousness at the cross of Calvary is the only basis for fellowship between God and man. That is why there is a representation of it in the tabernacle.
In the Old Testament, when the priests had been consecrated, fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice on the altar. In other important instances, in the cases of Gideon, Manoah, David and the threshing-floor of Ornan, and Solomon and the consecration of the temple, God showed His approval by sending fire from heaven. Fire speaks of the holiness of God which must consume everything which is not in accordance with it. So it was in the beginning and so it will be until the end. That is why the fire continued on the altar in the court of the tabernacle. In contrast with this, the strange fire which the sons of Aaron brought was fire they had kindled themselves and which did not have its origin in God. This reminds us that we also have to orientate ourselves and our ministry on the holiness of God. We find here in Revelation 8:5 that the angel took coals from the altar. This is the only standard by which everything is to be done, whether it be the efficacy of the incense which is to be brought (v. 3), or the judgment which is to be cast upon the earth (v. 5). The opening of the seventh seal (v. 1) takes place early in the unfolding of God’s judgments on the earth, but we are shown that the fire which kindles and characterises the judgment has its origin at this place where God has judged sin already in His only begotten and beloved Son.
In summary, the altar which was in the court of the tabernacle shows us the eternal and unchanging thought and reality that God must judge sin. It shows us that He has done so in the person of His Son on the cross of Calvary and that this is the basis for all His actions whatever they may be.
After the brazen altar the priest would come to the laver in the court of the tabernacle. We have found out already what answers to this in Revelation 4. It is called the brazen laver in connection with the tabernacle, and the brazen sea in connection with the temple of Solomon, and it is under this second name that we find it in Revelation. We read about the throne of God (v. 2) and the twenty-four elders around that throne (v. 4), and then in verse 6, ‘and before the throne, as a glass sea, like crystal.’ This glass sea is mentioned again in chapter 15, verse 2: ‘And I saw as a glass sea, mingled with fire.’
The high priest and the priests had to be washed at their consecration, and this washing at the beginning shows us that they were cleansed, once and for all, for their ministry. Against this background we can easily understand that when the Lord alludes to this in a spiritual sense in John 13, ‘he that is washed all over needs not to wash save his feet, but is wholly clean’, He is referring to the washing we received by our new birth. He has loved us and washed us by His blood, but we have also had this complete moral washing through being made partakers of the divine nature.
In the Old Testament the brazen laver was filled with water. Every time the high priest and the priests went into the sanctuary they passed by this laver and had reason to wash their hands and feet before entering into the holy presence of God. In John 13 the Lord said to His disciples that they were to wash one another’s feet after the example that He was leaving them. He was referring to their general walk, although priestly service will certainly be affected if there is not care in this matter. How important it is that we likewise, both as to our daily life and our priestly service, submit our behaviour to the cleansing action of the pure water of the Word of God. Ephesians chapter 5, verse 26, shows us that the Lord Jesus also applies this water to the whole assembly. He sanctifies and cleanses His assembly, which He has loved and for which He has given Himself, by the washing of the water of the Word.
Do we need to be cleansed in heaven? Do we need to be washed from defilement in that pure presence of the Lord? No. Therefore there is a sea, not containing water, but ‘a glass sea, like crystal’. Glass, if it is good glass naturally, looks like water, but this glass sea is the expression of a state of fixed purity which will always be true of those who are deemed worthy to spend eternity in the presence of God. It will for ever remind them of what is necessary for the presence of God.
The Golden Altar
The golden altar in the sanctuary of the tabernacle and of the temple stood directly in front of the curtain which concealed the ark of the covenant. In Revelation chapter 8, verse 3, the second half of the verse, it is called ‘the golden altar which was before the throne.’ What does this golden altar represent? As with everything in the tabernacle, it is an expression of the person and work of the Lord. Whether it is the brazen altar, the laver, the lamp-stand, or the table of shewbread, all these things speak of the Lord who supports in the presence of God what is connected spiritually with these different objects.
In Exodus 30, the golden altar is mentioned much later than the other things in the sanctuary because the consecration of the priests had to be dealt with first. Further down the chapter we also find mention of the incense which was to be brought and offered on this altar. The incense speaks of the adoration and worship of the saints which is offered by and through the Lord Jesus. There are only three passages in the New Testament which speak of worship and adoration in a more expressive way. In John 4, we read that the Father is seeking worshippers who worship him ‘in spirit and truth’. In Hebrews chapter 13, verse 15, we read: ‘By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise continually to God, that is, the fruit of the lips confessing His name.’ The Lord Jesus is the true golden altar and on this altar the incense, the sacrifices of praise, are to be offered. This will be true eternally. 1 Peter 2 says: ‘yourselves also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.’ Every spiritual activity in which we engage here on earth: gospel preaching, teaching, shepherding, attending Christian conferences, whatever it may be, will have its end. But there is one activity which will never end and that is worship. That is why there is a golden altar in the heavens because this thought of worship was eternally in the Father’s heart, and worship will be offered eternally by those redeemed through the precious blood of Christ.
The Throne of God
The throne of God is mentioned in Revelation 4 but no details are given there about it. This is also the case in the many other passages in the Revelation where the throne is referred to. We are not told what it looks like or, rather, because we are not speaking about material things, what are its characteristics. We do have descriptions of the throne of God in the heavenlies in Ezekiel chapter 1, verse 26, and in Isaiah chapter 6, verse 1. These verses show us that this glorious throne is surrounded and characterised by spiritual beings, especially the ‘living creatures’ as they are called in the first chapter of Ezekiel. The cherubim and seraphim are created spiritual beings but they are never identified in the Word of God with angels. I do not know whether it is wrong to say that they are angels, but Scripture does not do so. In the book of Revelation the four living creatures certainly combine the characteristics of the living creatures in Ezekiel and the seraphim in Isaiah, chapter 6. The book of Ezekiel shows us the characteristics of the governmental throne of God.
Two cherubim of gold, made of one piece with the mercy seat, stood over the ark of the covenant. Their faces were turned towards the place where the blood was brought once a year on the day of atonement. We read in 1 Samuel 4:4, and 2 Samuel 6:2, that God sat between the two cherubim. The German translation says: ‘He sits on His throne between the cherubim’, and it is evident that the ark was the throne of God. It is the most complete representation of the person and work of the Lord. In this connection we read in Hebrews 9, of the ‘Holy of holies, having a golden censer, and the ark of the covenant, covered round in every part with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, and the rod of Aaron that had sprouted, and the tables of the covenant; and above over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy-seat; concerning which it is not now the time to speak in detail.’
The covering of the ark of the covenant is called here ‘the mercy-seat’ and in Romans chapter 3, verse 24, we read that believers are ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth a mercy-seat, through faith in his blood.’ In this verse, God’s Word itself is saying that the Lord Jesus, by His atoning work on Calvary, is the fulfilment of the type of the mercy-seat in the Old Testament. This is God’s throne; the basis of His dealings with men at the present time. Is it not a wonderful thing that His throne is called in Hebrews 4, a throne of grace? The holy and righteous God has mercy and grace for us because this is the footing on which every action of His is based at the present time. He is, so to speak, enthroned on this mercy-seat, on the Lord Jesus who is the throne of grace. He is the one who has opened the way into the presence of God. In the future God’s activities will change, and the God of grace will reveal himself as a God of judgment, but still, as we have seen already, the impulse and the measure of what He is doing will always be the Lord Jesus and His work on the cross of Calvary. By faith we can approach this throne of God now in spirit, but soon we will surround that throne where our God and Father is enthroned. These representations are not to be thought of in a materialistic way because we have seen that the throne is actually what the Lord is and what He has done, although He is also the Lamb in the midst of the throne. We will be there and we will be reminded for eternity of all that we find in connection with the tabernacle on earth. I can only recommend to every young believer that they study these things because they point forward to the assembly and also upwards to where we shall be soon in the presence of God, surrounding His throne, casting our crowns before Him and singing the new song: ‘Thou art worthy’.