Finding Jesus in the Old Testament sanctuary

A man awakes in the early morning to a troubled conscience that kept him up all night.  The last hours have been mostly tossing and turning, thinking about his sin that won’t let his mind rest.  It’s no use to try to sleep; his heart can’t find peace. He gets out of bed as his wife sleeps beside him.  He checks on his children, leaves the tent, and kneels beside a tree outside of the Israelite camp.  As he tries to pray, a strong conviction takes hold of his heart and mind. His sin has separated him from a holy God.  He recalls his attempts to justify it, thinking that it isn’t really that big of a deal. “Others have done worse, even those who are supposed to more fully represent God,” he reasons. He then remembers his attempt to hide it, saying no one will ever know.  Yet the more he tried to hide it, the greater guilt he felt. More sleepless nights, more anxiety to bear, more fear of being discovered agonized His soul. The lies he told to cover that first sin only snowballed.  All of these things have led him to this breaking point, and now his heart fears being separated from God. All of his endeavors at just “forgetting the past and being good from now on” have left him hopeless.  Time and time again he has failed in his own strength. He needs something more, something real, something outside of himself that can bring the forgiveness he must have for his past and the power he needs to live right in the future.

Are we really so different from the Israelites of old?  Do we not still sense the same lack of power in our lives to live righteously before a holy God?  Don’t we feel the same guilt for doing wrong and then trying to cover it up with good deeds we know will not rid us of the guilt we carry? Though we live in a different time, we are not so different, for the Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). We are all in the same situation. What is the solution to find peace and replace the guilt?  For this, we return to our story.

The man cries out with his whole heart for God to forgive him. He realizes that he must follow the plan that God has personally ordained for his restitution. “But will God accept me? Will He be willing to forgive so many sins? Have I gone too far this time?” These thoughts race through his mind. Do we not ask the same questions today? The answers come from Deuteronomy 30: 3-6:

If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven (if your sin separates you from God without hope), from there the Lord your God will gather you (no matter how bad it is, God can bring you back), and have compassion on you (God’s mercy is greater than the greatest sinner), and will circumcise your heart (re-create your heart), to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, that you may live.” (Used in parts). 

We often wonder if we have done too much for God to forgive us. I assure you this Bible promise is for you the same as it was for that young Israelite.  The promises of God are never out-dated, so take courage that you can claim this promise today.

With this promise to encourage his heart, he rises from his knees and goes to his flock of sheep that graze nearby. He carefully looks through the fold, scanning the newly born lambs that are but a few weeks old. Finally, his eyes rest upon one that has not one defect. He picks it up and begins to walk toward the center of the camp to the sanctuary.

As he walks through the gate, he is reminded of why he is there. His sin has separated him from God, and death is the sure penalty for his actions. Yet, his heart rejoices, because in the plan that God has made, this little lamb can be his substitute. He realizes how innocent the lamb is as he looks into its eyes, and he shudders that it must now die because of his sin. He approaches the priest, who hands him a dagger. With that, he kneels on the ground and places his hand firmly upon the head of the lamb. He confesses the sin that has crushed his soul for so long, which no one knew save he and God. As he finishes, he takes the dagger and cuts the throat of this innocent lamb, and the priest catches the blood in a bowl. The priest then proceeds into the Holy Place to begin intercession before God on the man’s behalf. The man returns to his tent with the full assurance that his sin is forgiven. The peace he now experiences settles in his heart, and he is once again right with God. God accepts Him because of the sacrifice that was made for him.

What’s the reason for so much blood?

What does this ceremony mean to us today? Many look upon the sanctuary system as cruel and bloody. Others are mortified at the thought of killing such an innocent lamb. What did it accomplish? Some have questioned their faith in God because they could not understand how He could be “love” and yet allow such bloodshed. Yet, when we take a deeper look into the sanctuary and its services, we see a remarkable picture of the love of God, a clearer understanding of the plan of salvation revealed in the New Testament, and a beautiful revelation of Jesus’ plan to restore us into God’s image.

One of the greatest texts in the Bible describes what God wants to do through the sanctuary. In Exodus 25:8, God declares, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” This text alone reveals enough about the character of God to talk about through all eternity! He wants to dwell with His people face to face, but sin in our lives prevents this. The Bible declares that God is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, and He alone knows the future (Isaiah 44:6). This being said, even before God created Adam and Eve, He knew that they would sin against  Him, and all humanity would follow in their path.

This creates an interesting question that many have asked. If God knew that they would sin against Him, then why even create them? Why go through the pain of having someone you love hurt you so much? I often illustrate it this way: Suppose you were planning to marry someone you truly loved, but you knew on your twentieth anniversary, that person would divorce you and crush your heart in every way possible. Would you marry that person anyway?  Most would not!  We all, in some capacity, have experienced the pain that divorce brings.  When we sin against God, the pain He feels is infinite because His love for us is infinite. However, God was willing to create us despite the fact that He would suffer so much pain.  Why would He do this?  The answer is found in Jeremiah 31:3: “The Lord appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love.’”  God’s love is so great that He is willing to go through any amount of pain to have us…even rejection of Him because of sin. He hopes that if we but see the love in His heart for us, we will turn to Him forever. This is why Exodus 25:8 is so amazing! Despite the pain that humanity has caused God, He still desires to dwell with us. This is good news for you and me!

God’s Big Problem:

However, there is still a problem that prevents God from fully dwelling with His people, and it is a big problem. The thing He hates the most (sin) is inside the thing He loves the most (us). Sin cannot exist in the sight of a holy God. Despite the fact that God wants us to be in His presence, in our current state of sin we cannot or else we would be consumed by His presence. God must have a way through which He can remove the sin from us without completely destroying us in the process. So, how does God solve this problem? The Bible tells us, “Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary” (Psalm 77:13). What way? The way of salvation! God illustrates the plan of salvation through the sanctuary, and Jesus is the center of it all. Jesus said, “I am the WAY, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). If Jesus is the only “way” to be restored to God, then Jesus must be the center of the sanctuary, as the Bible says, “Thy WAY, Oh God, is in the sanctuary.”

An Earthly Plan That Reveals The Heavenly Plan:

The Old Testament, Israelite sanctuary on earth was designed and set up by God Himself to teach us the complete plan of salvation in its fullness. The Bible tells us that the earthly sanctuary is a model and reflection of the true sanctuary in heaven, where Jesus is. Moses, when he received the instructions to build the earthly sanctuary, was to follow a “pattern” that God Himself provided. Consider the following passages that explain this more fully:

that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:9)
‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’” (Hebrews 8:5)
heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected (the heavenly sanctuary), and not man (earthly sanctuary). (Hebrews 8:1-2)
which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” (Hebrews 9:24)

These texts tell us that the earthly sanctuary was but a “copy” of the true sanctuary in heaven. Christ is there interceding before God on our behalf. Everything in the earthly sanctuary- every sacrifice, every service, every ceremony, every piece of furniture- all reveals Jesus and His plan to save us. What wonderful news! Jesus stands before the throne of the God of the universe seeking our good. This is truly a great thought to carry with us throughout our day…that Jesus always desires the best for our life. Let’s explore the sanctuary to see how God unfolds this plan and how it is relevant for our lives today. We will look at the main parts and see how each is a representation of what Jesus did, or is doing, for us now to redeem us. Every item in the sanctuary can be paralleled to some experience of the Christian life. It is remarkable to see that Christ was the very center of the sanctuary - God’s plan of salvation, even in the Old Testament. The sanctuary is like a 3-D object lesson that describes our journey from sinful earth to being in heaven with God. It reveals the process in the life of the Christian by which God prepares us for heaven. We’ll see this as we begin with the outer court and progress into the Most Holy Place and the very presence of God.

The Three Sanctuary Compartments

There were three main components to the sanctuary.  Each section had pieces of furniture that were used in the various services. The first part was the courtyard where the sacrifices were conducted. The second part was the Holy Place where daily ceremonies were performed that representing important aspects of the Christian life. The third part was the Most Holy place. It was here that the literal, physical presence of God dwelt. As we will see more fully later, it was a symbol of the very throne of God in heaven. Each of these compartments represents very important steps in the process of salvation.  We will see how each plays a vital role as we continue our study. 


1) The Gate: Jesus is the Way 

The front door to the sanctuary, or the gate, was the only entrance to the sanctuary. No other entry was available. This is very significant, as Jesus said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). The single door of the sanctuary represented Jesus, the only way to salvation. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Then, just as today, Jesus is the only hope for the sinner to receive forgiveness.  There is no other way to heaven than by accepting Christ as your personal Savior.

2) The Altar of Sacrifice--Jesus Takes My Place

As the person came through the gate into the courtyard, he first saw the Altar of Sacrifice (Exodus 27:1-8). This is where the sacrifice of the lamb took place. It was the sinner that deserved to die for sin, but the lamb, by God’s ordained plan, would become the substitute. The Bible makes clear that there is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22), since the wages of sin is death. The sinner confessed his sin, and the sin symbolically transferred from the sinner to the lamb, which then suffered the penalty for sin: death (Leviticus 4:32-35).

What does this symbolize? Jesus is portrayed all through the Bible as a lamb (John 1:29). Every lamb that was sacrificed in Israel represented the true Lamb of God, Jesus, who would one day come as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. He is the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. He is your substitute and mine. These sacrifices were made daily, teaching us the importance of forgiveness of sin through the blood of Jesus and the willingness of God to provide grace according to our need whenever we call on Him.  We may be great sinners, but Jesus is a greater Savior! 

There is a common misconception today about the way the people of Israel were saved. Many today believe that they were saved by their work of sacrificing animals or by keeping the laws God gave Israel. The saying goes, “People in the OT were saved by works, but we are saved by grace.” Nothing could be further from the truth! It wasn’t their own works that saved them, but their faith in a coming Messiah.  It wasn’t the shed blood of the animal that gave the forgiveness of sin, but what it represented. The blood of the animals was a symbol of Jesus’ blood that would be shed for man to redeem him from sin (Hebrews 9:12-14).  The Israelites of old had to practice faith just as much as we do today. Every sacrifice made pointed forward in faith when one day Jesus would come as the complete sacrifice for sin. Just as we look back by faith to what Christ did for us on the cross, so they looked forward by faith in every sacrifice to what He would do for them on the cross in the future. Hebrews 4:2 says, “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them…”  How did they know the gospel or good news about Christ?  Through the sanctuary, of course!  It was God’s plan to show them the savior Jesus before He ever came to this earth.

The Altar is a symbol of the cross where Jesus would die for the sins of the world.  It is a symbol of God’s great love to mankind in giving the life of His Son for a world that hated Him. Yet, it’s much more than that. It’s a sign that Jesus loves you personally, and He died for you personally. Scripture reveals that even if you were the only one who would have accepted Him, He would have died just for you. Even if everyone else rejected Him, He would have gone through the agonizing suffering of the cross just to give you alone the opportunity of accepting Him. There is no higher price in the universe that God could pay than the life of Christ. Yet, that’s exactly what He did (Romans 5:8-9). This is true love, and when we come to the cross by faith and confess our sins with a sincere heart, we can have the assurance that Jesus has died for us, and our sin, no matter how great, can be forgiven.  It is only then that we can have true peace with God.  It is only at the cross that we can find true freedom from sin’s guilt.  He suffered what we deserve so that we could have what He deserves. Are you carrying needless guilt in your heart today? The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). He greatly desires to give you that gift the very moment you ask for it. Why not come to Jesus and ask Him to cleanse you right now? He is willing to help any that come to Him. 

3) The Laver--Jesus Washes Me Clean

Past the Altar of Sacrifice was the laver. Once the priest had blood from the sacrifice, he would stop at the laver before entering the sanctuary. Here he would wash his hands and feet of the blood that had stained his hands from the sacrifice (Exodus 30:17-21). This act represented Jesus washing away the sin in the life of the believer through baptism. In the life of the Christian, once we accept Jesus as our Savior at the cross (Altar), it is imperative that we be baptized (Laver) to demonstrate the change in the life that Jesus has made. The Bible says, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16) Baptism is a statement of faith that a person has accepted Christ and is committing their life to Him. It represents death to the old life of sin and new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-8) The Israelites, when they left Egypt (the past life of sin) behind, were “baptized” when they marched through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).  They were entering into a relationship with God. Equally as important as accepting Christ in the life (Altar) is baptism (Laver). They are both part of the born again (courtyard) experience. Speaking of the importance of baptism, Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5) Have you been baptized?  Jesus wants to make you a new creation and wants to wash away your sins. Will you give them to Him today and be washed whiter than snow by His grace?  He longs to give you peace and joy in your life if you will but call on His name just now. 


The work done in the Holy Place was very sacred. It symbolized the work of Christ today in the life of the one who believes in Him. There were three articles of furniture in the Holy Place, and each represent a practical aspect of the Christian life that is vital to remaining connected to Christ. Without these three areas of growth in the Christian, it is certain that the experience will grow dull, lifeless, and cold. Let’s look at each of these three articles and how they apply to us today. 

1. Table of Shewbread: Jesus Feeds Me with the Bread of Heaven

The first article, the Table of Shewbread, was on the right just past the entrance (Leviticus 24:5-9). Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven (shew bread from the heavenly sanctuary). If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51).  This bread represents Jesus, the bread of life that feeds the entire world.  What good news!  Those who hunger for Jesus will always be filled.  He promises to feed us with as much as we can hold (John 6:35)!  Are the things of this world not satisfying you anymore? Do you desire something deeper in your life? Come to Jesus, friend; He has exactly what you need.

What is this bread that He promises? Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The bread of life is the precious promises from the word of God. The Bible has the power to change your life more than any other book. As you spend time feeding on the words of Jesus, He can break the greatest addictions, give wisdom for the greatest problems, and improve our thinking process.  When we open the pages of Scripture, it is like hearing the voice of God.  He speaks to the soul, and He promises to guide your life today.

The bread was to be eaten by the priests and replaced every Sabbath day. This also symbolizes the importance of going to church each week to receive a “fresh loaf” of spiritual nourishment. However, this in itself is not enough. Just as it is vital to the body to eat physical food daily, so it is vital to the soul to eat spiritual food daily. Without it, we will surely die spiritually. Jesus wants to transform our life by being the center of our thoughts every moment.  He can only do this as we spend time with Him in His word.

2) The 7 Branch Lamp-stand: Jesus Fills Me With His Spirit

Straight across from the bread was a lamp-stand made of pure gold (Exodus 25:31-40). The lamp had seven wicks.  In Revelation 1:12, John sees Jesus standing amidst the lampstand in the heavenly sanctuary. Revelation 1:20 tells us that the lampstand represents the seven churches.  It tells us that Jesus is always walking in the midst of His people, even in hard times.  He cares about you, and He will never forsake us even when the trial seems hard to bear.  He is always there to give us strength.

The lamp was fueled by pure olive oil (Exodus 27:20-21). Olive oil in the Bible is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Israelite kings were anointed with oil to signify their leadership being guided by God’s Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit today just as much as the kings of old! God desires to speak to our hearts through the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-18).  He guides us in Bible truth (John 16:13) and convicts us of right and wrong, urging us to do what is right (John 16:8). Jesus promises to give us as much of the Holy Spirit as we will ask for, so ask!  Ask Him to fill you with the Spirit today without measure! (Luke 11:9-13)

The lamp also provided light for the work of the sanctuary.  This light represented Jesus who said, I am the Light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of light" (John 8:12). If we will trust in Him, He will give us spiritual light from His word that will allow us to live above the world of darkness around us. Christ desires nothing more than to give us the light of heaven in our lives, but we must ask for it! It’s no wonder that God gave specific instructions the lamp was never allowed to be extinguished, because it represented Jesus!

Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before men.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus not only wants to give us light, but He wants us to be a light to others.  He wants us to shine for Him in a world of darkness. When the lamb burned the olive oil to give light, it was the work of the priest to re-fill it when it was low. Jesus is our High Priest in heaven, and when we are a light to the world, He constantly re-fills us with His Spirit. These two elements are vital for the survival of the Christian: 1) We need the Holy Spirit 2) We must share Christ with others. 

3) The Altar of Incense: Jesus Prays for Me as I Pray for Others

The third article in the Holy Place was the Altar of Incense (Exodus 30:1-10).  It was here that the priests burned incense to God. The incense would go from the Holy Place into the Most Holy Place where the presence of God was. A curtain separated the two compartments. It was well pleasing to God to have this incense in His presence.  What did it represent?  Revelation 8:3-4 tells us that the incense which ascended in the earthly sanctuary was a symbol of the prayers of God’s people on earth ascending to the heavenly sanctuary. Prayer is a vital part of the Christian life. One author stated that “prayer is like the breath of the soul.” If we stopped breathing, it would only be a matter of minutes before we were dead! If prayer is like breathing, then we need it every day!  God wants us to regularly seek Him in prayer and talk to Him as a friend. When we pray, we enter the presence of God. He draws near to us, and we can have a one-on-one audience with the King of the Universe!  He never grows weary of hearing from His children.  Won’t you talk to Him today?

Romans 8:26 reveals that because of our human frailty, the Holy Spirit helps us when we pray. We are sinful, and we don’t understand spiritual things as much as we should. Yet God in His mercy has made provision for this. Verse 27 tells us that Jesus is there before the throne of God praying on our behalf. When we pray, the Holy Spirit carries our prayers upward to heaven and blends them with the righteous prayers of Christ where they are answered according to the will of God. Jesus knows exactly what we need, and He makes our prayers even more effective! How wonderful this is and makes me want to pray more!  It was once said that the devil fears nothing on earth except a man or woman on their knees!  When we pray, we open the channel for God to work powerfully in our lives. Prayer is absolutely essential in walking with Jesus each day.  For more on prayer, see the chapter, “Seeking God’s Presence in the Sanctuary.”

The Holy Place reveals what we should be doing and what God is doing in our lives to prepare us to live in heaven with Him. Bible study, prayer, receiving the Holy Spirit, and sharing Christ with others are vital for those who profess Christ. This process is called sanctification, and it shows the work Jesus is doing IN our hearts over a lifetime. As we partake in these things, we become more and more like Jesus, and we will be ready to go home with Him when He comes. Do you want to be ready when Jesus comes again?  Give your life to Him, and watch Him do something great in you (2 Thessalonians 2:13)!


Past the Holy Place was the Most Holy. It contained the most important piece of furniture – the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10-22). The Ark was a box overlaid with gold. On top of it was a type of chair that was called the mercy seat. It was here that the literal, physical presence of God was. This symbolized God’s literal throne in heaven, where He dwells continually. On either side of the ark was a golden angel. This symbolizes the literal angels that stand beside His throne. 

Inside the Ark was the Ten Commandments, also known as the Testimony. This symbolized that God’s eternal law was the very foundation of His throne in heaven. It contains the principles that all heaven is ruled by. At the very heart of God’s law was the seventh-day Sabbath, a day of rest that God still wants to spend in holy communion with His people.

Once per year, the High Priest would enter into the Most Holy Place to do a final work of intercession for the people as the year ended. It was known as the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). It was a time when God wanted to be At-One-Ment with His people. This was a day that was most sacred to the Israelites, as it was a day of final judgment. It was the day that all their sins must be confessed before God, or else they would be cut off from the people. Though it is too big of a subject to discuss here, this Day of Atonement represents the final judgment to happen at the end of earth’s history. The end of this judgment will mark the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. Before Jesus returns, we must confess to Him all of our sins so that He can purify us to live with Him. Daniel 8 contains a prophecy that reveals the time of this judgment and how it impacts us personally and the current time we live in today. 

The High Priest in the earthly sanctuary represents Jesus, who is our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary now (Hebrews 4:14-15).  Because He was sinless as a man on the earth, He alone qualifies to represent us before God. Because of His humanity, He understands our weaknesses and the challenges we face. However, because of His divinity, He can give us power to be victorious over the sin in our lives. He alone has what we need to be conquerors (Hebrews 2:17).  You can trust Him to bring victory to your life today.

When the High Priest entered into the Holy Place, He wore a breastplate that contained twelve stones.  On each stone was written one of the names of the tribes of Israel, God’s people. On each shoulder, he had a stone that also contained the names of God’s people. What is the significance of the breastplate and shoulders? As Jesus intercedes for us as High Priest before God, He has our names written above His heart, so that we will never forget how much He loves us. He has our names written on His shoulder, because He carries our burdens and hardships in to the presence of the Father. He asks the Father that which the Father already wants to give us: help when we need it the most. This is a beautiful revelation of God’s true character. The Bible says in Hebrews 7:25, “Therefore, He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”  How amazing that every heartbeat of Jesus desires to bring good into our lives!


To summarize, the three sections of the sanctuary demonstrate the three components of salvation:

Courtyard demonstrates what Jesus did FOR US:
Justification through His death on the cross which provides instant forgiveness for our sinful past when we confess our sins to Jesus. It gives us freedom from sin’s Penalty.
Holy Place demonstrates what Jesus does IN US now:
Sanctification God’s lifelong process of changing our character as we seek Him daily that provides us power to live holy lives in the present. It frees us from sin’s Power in our lives to follow Christ.
Most Holy Place represents where God will TAKE US in the future when the process is complete…to live in His presence, free from the curse of sin. He must first remove our sin before we can live with Him where there is no sin.
Glorification, and it will ultimately free us from sin’s Presence when we will stand in God’s presence.

Romans 5:1 sums it up perfectly:

Therefore, having been justified by faith (justification), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom (Jesus) also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand (sanctification), and rejoice in the hope of the glory (future glorification) of God.

God also incredibly demonstrated all of these steps in the life of Jesus when He came to this earth.  It is amazing to see how Jesus followed this pattern in His life.  See the model below for how this happened. 


As we have seen, it can truly be said, “Thy way, Oh God, is in the sanctuary.” It paints a picture of a complete system of truth that tells the story of God’s desire and plan to one day dwell with His people face to face. It reveals the process that God uses to remove sin from our lives.  It demonstrates how God transforms humanity from the despair and death of sin to righteous saints that can once again stand in His presence free from sin in the Most Holy Place. From the cross, to baptism, to the elements of the Christian life on the journey to heaven, God reveals step by step how He will restore us into His image.  Everything has been done in advance to give each of us every opportunity to accept God and allow Him to prepare us for heaven. Friend, perhaps you have never accepted Christ in your life. What would prevent you from accepting him just now? What would prevent you from allowing Him to take you on the journey to heaven through the sanctuary? Why not accept Jesus right now and ask Him to prepare your heart and life to meet him when He comes again soon to take us home?