These are not descriptions of literal tabernacle furnishings in heaven. The tabernacle depicted reconciliation between mankind and God, and between man and his neighbour/ enemy, including the tribes’ tents around the sanctuary, representing all redeemed humanity. These original tents in the Wilderness spoke of the tribes of Israel dwelling in harmony in the presence of God. Ezekiel later depicted these tents in a renewed land, all dwelling around the temple, i.e. the nations living in peace with each other in the presence of God. The tabernacle in heaven, that the letter of Hebrews speaks of, is the same. It depicts in symbolism the author’s discussion about reconciliation and how Christ has achieved that. Reconciliation in our lives with each other fulfils what the tabernacle represents.
The tabernacle in the Old Testament represented the cosmos, that is the heaven/ earth creation. It was decorated in artwork depicting heaven and earth. It reflected God’s dwelling in Eden, and in the later larger temple Israel built, then in the church filling and renewing the land, and finally in the new creation of Revelation 21-22. The tabernacle speaks of this cosmos being renewed through the reconciling of relationships, through the removal of enmity, both between heaven and earth and throughout earth itself, between its people. This brings us back to Isaiah’s vision showing relationships in the world being healed and the flourishing of the creation being the result.
The symbolism of the Old Testament tabernacle was fulfilled in the cross of Christ, which made reconciliation between mankind and God, and between Jew and gentile, that is, between all our people groups. The difference between the two covenants is the second one was based upon peace, and achieved by peace, thereby taking wrath out of our hearts in all our relationships. This is what the first covenant could not do. It could not take away sin, between us and God and between us and our neighbour, because the covenant itself was based upon law and retribution.
The second covenant had no act of wrath on God’s part. Rather, it had a willing sacrifice, who offered up himself, without any violent resistance or retaliation against his enemies. Here, Christ shows the manner of our discipleship, not resisting violence with violence, as he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not resist evil,” meaning with violence.
Just as Christ demanded in the Sermon on the Mount that we forgive others without just recompense, so God also forgives us without payment under the law. This is the God we follow in discipleship. The justice of God is not legal recompense, either against us or vicariously against a scapegoat, but merciful restoration.
When offered for our sin, that is, when the people offered Christ as a sinner, to crucify and put sin out of the land, just as they did with the scapegoat under the Old Covenant, our sin was taken away. It was taken away by Christ forgiving our sin freely on the cross, on the behalf of God. The cross took away our sin, by Christ forgiving humanity who hanged him there.
So, God overcomes our sin non-violently. He doesn’t demand a sacrifice (payment for sin) but calls his Son to obediently suffer our act of hostility. This ends up being “for our sin,” for God to demonstrate his forgiveness, and to take sin out of our hearts, through the demonstration of his grace. He dealt with sin non-violently, by freely forgiving our injustice against him on the cross. He bore our injustice in himself. All the violence came from us, which Christ suffered in obedience to non-violence, to show us the nature and love of God for us all.
This is what the tabernacle couldn’t show, because until Christ came, the people couldn’t understand how God could take away our sin. It would not be through God’s demand for blood, which our cultures all assumed, but rather through our fallen religion’s demand for blood, which worked in all our own hearts. When we demanded the blood of Christ, the scapegoating gods which controlled us in the Old Covenant, and before that throughout the history of human relationships, were exposed in the light. In our violence against heaven on the cross, God would show his immediate full and free forgiveness to us through Christ, without scapegoating a single soul. This had to be demonstrated on the cross publicly, for us all to see it and no know the nature of God.
Our sins are put away by a pacific act of God, in which God himself required no Old Testament retribution for sin. God instead brought un into his pacifism, by submerging us in his grace at the foot of his cross. The cross revealed that the scapegoating in our religions doesn’t sanctify our hearts but originates from and perpetuates human retributive aggression. The cross revealed that bloodletting comes from man, and so ended sacrifice by renewing our former religious mind, which led to scapegoating dominating relationships. Christ ended sacrifice by showing the true reason we do it to others and opened the door to a new discipleship in our relationships.
The author of Hebrews said this is a better covenant, chiefly because the offering was better than those under the Old Covenant. It took a sinless offering to expose our human wrath against others, which we carry out for our own sin. We have been doing this since Adam blamed Eve. When we wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, to take away our sin, to show our righteousness, our motives were covered by whatever the woman lacked in innocence. But when we offered up Christ to die, our motives were fully exposed by his complete innocence. God had to come in the flesh for the severity of our sin to come to light at Calvary.
Also, an animal dying can’t express God’s grace to us. It doesn’t free our hearts. We can’t be sure of God’s grace. But when God comes in Christ and we visited all our wickedness upon him, and he forgives us by his own mouth in return, then grace is revealed, and the law’s condemnation is broken and is taken out of our hearts. This victory over the law now being complete, frees our hearts from scapegoating and opens the door for new relationships, in a way that our retaliatory actions for sin under the Old Covenant could never do.
The serpent lodged the law and its wrath in the human heart in the Garden and it has held us captive ever since. Only forgiveness from the mouth of the perfect offering, from God himself in Christ, who we offered for our sin, could deliver us from such a captivity and give us the new heart Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of, which the author of Hebrews now calls to the reader’s mind. Being forgiven by God, in a way that his forgiveness cannot be doubted, there is strong consolation and now no further need of sacrifice. He came to take away what he never liked. The purpose of the cross, as we shall see later in Hebrews, is our own consolation.
And because Christ is an eternal high priest, we know the forgiveness he expressed on the cross is everlasting, never to be taken away. God’s final expression of forgiveness towards us is proven through the resurrection of Christ and his ascension to rule over our lives in grace.
“He made him who knew no sin, to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” This statement by Paul sums it up. God came in Christ, to be handed over as sin by us, to free us from handing over others to condemnation, to instead serve one another. This brings into the world a family that reflects God’s true nature, becoming his righteousness in the world. That is, this new family transforming relationships, communities and the cosmos, becomes the fulfilment of God’s promises under the Old Covenant. In us, God can say he has been righteous, he has done in Christ what he promised to Abraham he would do. Just as in the letter of Hebrews, Paul wasn’t speaking in 2 Corinthian 4-5 of a legal salvation, but of a saved cosmos through a new humanity.