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The Symbolism of the Ark of the Covenant

It seems that every year a new children’s story Bible comes out. The captivating artwork often makes the biblical stories come alive. There is one picture, in a particular story Bibles our family has, that my two and a half-year old, Elijah, loves more than others. It is a picture of a flame coming down on the prophet Elijah’s altar. There was a time when my son refused to go to bed until he saw the picture of fire coming down on the altar. Every night he would say, “Fire! Fire! Show me the fire.” This picture was actually a picture within a picture. The Lord was illustrating the work of Christ by sending fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar. While the Israelites had no children’s story Bibles, they were given pictures of the Gospel in the Old Covenant types and ordinances. Among them were the Passover, the Exodus, the sacrificial system, the festivals, the Priesthood, and the ceremonies of the Tabernacle and Temple worship. There is one picture to which I have often loved to return—the picture of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark was the most significant object in Old Covenant worship. It was a box—overlaid with gold—in the Most Holy place. “A golden urn holding the manna, Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” were placed within the Ark. The mercy seat covered the box. Two cherubim, facing one another, overshadowed the mercy seat. When God came down, His glory resred above the mercy seat—between the cherubim. What did this elaborate picture portray? The Ark was a picture of the Person and saving work of Christ.

The manna in the golden bowl represented the life-sustaining food that God gives His people in Christ. When Israel was in the wilderness, the Lord sustained them with this mysterious bread. Not knowing what it was they called it “Manna” (lit. ‘What is it?’). When Jesus fed the five thousand He said, “Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.…the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). The flesh and blood of Christ is life-sustaining food for the believer.

The significance of Aaron’s rod is found in Numbers 16-17. Certain jealous men had called Aaron’s Priesthood into question. God commanded that the rebels take their rods and lay them out next to Aaron’s. The Lord made the rod of the man He had chosen to bud. Jesus is the great High Priest, chosen by His Father from all eternity. The rod was placed in the ark to show that Christ was the LORD’s chosen and anointed Priest (Isaiah 42:1; Heb. 5:4).

The Ten Commandments were also placed in the ark. This showed that the moral Law of God would forever stand before the presence of God. It also represented that the Law would be kept in Christ. He would fully obey all the commands of God for His people.

The mercy seat was set on top of the Ark. When the Priest went into the Holy of Holies, he sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat. This represented the atoning blood of Jesus. Israel’s sin formed a barrier between God and them. Our sins have also separated us from God. God must look at man through the lens of the law on account of His holiness. How can unrighteous man stand before the presence of the righteous God? The dilemma is resolved through the blood of Jesus. Just as the blood on the mercy seat, the blood of Christ stands between the Law of God and the Presence of God. When the Lord saw the blood His wrath was satisfied. Through the blood of Jesus the transgressions of God’s people have been forgiven. Now, the Lord sees believers–not through the lens of the law, but through the lens of the Gospel.

The symbolism of the Ark reached its grand climax on the Day of Atonement. When the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the mercy seat the glory of God appeared. This was a picture of the heavenly glory of God, There angels stand before His throne and praise Him day and night. It was also a picture of the restored presence of God through the resurrection of Christ. When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb seeking the body of Jesus, she found two angels–one at the head, and the other at the feet—where the body of Jesus had been. The presence of God has been restored to the believer in the resurrection of Christ. The things of redemption are the “things which angels long to look into.”

God has given us the most intricate pictures of the Gospel in His Word. We are called to study them diligently. We must approach these pictures with a child-like sense of wonder. The more we discern the work of Christ in the pictures, the more we will grow in our gratitude to Him and love for Him.

*This article is a modified version of the July 2011 Weekend Devotional written for Tabletalk Magazine.

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