The Holy of Holies and the Veil
Within the Holy Place of the tabernacle, there was an inner room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place. It was God’s special dwelling place in the midst of His people. During the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, God appeared as a pillar of cloud or fire in and above the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube — its length, width and height were all equal to 15 feet. A thick curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. This curtain, known as the “veil,” was made of fine linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn. There were figures of cherubim (angels) embroidered onto it. Cherubim, spirits who serve God, were in the presence of God to demonstrate His almighty power and majesty. They also guarded the throne of God. These cherubim were also on the innermost layer of covering of the tent. If one looked upward, they would see the cherubim figures.

The word “veil” in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator. Essentially, it was shielding a holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the Holy of Holies was entering the very presence of God. In fact, anyone except the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. The picture of the veil was that of a barrier between man and God, showing man that the holiness of God could not be trifled with. God’s eyes are too pure to look on evil and He cannot tolerate sin. (Habakkuk 1:13) The veil was a barrier to make sure that man could not irreverently enter into God’s awesome presence. Even as the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he had to make some meticulous preparations: He had to wash himself, put on special clothing, bring burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and bring blood with him to make atonement for sins.

“But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (Hebrews 9:7)
So the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross changed that. When He died, the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, from the top to the bottom.

I remember a scene from the movie ‘The Jazz Singer’ starring Neil Diamond (as Jess Robins) where his father (Cantor Rabinovitch played by Lawrence Olivier)  discovered that his son was in a relationship with a non-Jew. The father tore his shirt and began singing as he walked away from his son. Jess’s Gentile girlfriend (Lucy Arnaz) asked him what his father was singing. He answered, “A funeral dirge.” She asked him, “Who died?” And Jess sadly replied, “I did.”

When Jesus died God cried out, “My son has died!” And tore the temple veil from top to bottom! Only God could have carried out such an incredible feat because the veil was too high for human hands to have reached it, and too thick to have torn it. The Jerusalem temple, a replica of the wilderness tabernacle, had a curtain that was about 60 feet in height, 30 feet in width and four inches thick. So this act must have come from above.

As the veil was torn, the Holy of Holies was exposed. God’s presence was now accessible to all. Shocking as this may have been to the priests ministering in the temple that day, it is indeed good news to us as believers, because we know that Jesus’ death has atoned for our sins and made us right before God. The torn veil illustrated Jesus’ body broken for us, opening the way for us to come to God. As Jesus cried out “It is finished!” on the cross, he was indeed proclaiming that God’s redemptive plan was now complete. The age of animal sin offerings was over because the ultimate offering had been sacrificed. We can now boldly enter into God’s presence, “the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20)

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19-22)

“For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. …But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:24-26)

The Ark of the Covenant and Atonement Cover

Within the Holy of Holies, shielded from the eye of the common man, was one piece of furniture comprising two parts: the Ark of the Covenant and the atonement cover (or “mercy seat”) on top of it. The ark was a chest made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold inside and out. It was 3 feet, 9 inches long and 2 feet, 3 inches wide and high. The atonement cover was the lid for the ark. On top of it stood two cherubim (angels) at the two ends, facing each other. The cherubim, symbols of God’s divine presence and power, were facing downward toward the ark with outstretched wings that covered the atonement cover. The whole structure was beaten out of one piece of pure gold. The atonement cover was God’s dwelling place in the tabernacle. It was His throne, flanked by angels. God said to Moses: “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” (Exodus 25:22)

“Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.” (Leviticus 16:2)

Other Scriptures also speak of God’s throne:
“…the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark.” (2 Samuel 6:2)

“O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Isaiah 37:16)

Above the ark and the atonement cover, God appeared in His glory in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16). This light is sometimes referred to as the Shekinah glory. The word Shekinah, although it does not appear in our English bibles, has the same roots as the word for tabernacle in Hebrew and refers to the presence of the Lord. Because the ark was God’s throne among His people, it was a symbol of His presence and power with them wherever it went. There are quite a number of miracles recorded in the Old Testament surrounding the ark: With the presence of the ark, the waters of the River Jordan divided so the Israelites could cross on dry land, and the walls of Jericho fell so that the Israelites could capture it (Joshua 3:14-17, 6:6-21). Yet the ark could not be treated with irreverence because it was also a symbol of God’s judgment and wrath. God showed His power to the Philistines when He caused their idol, Dagon, to fall to the ground when the ark was placed next to it, and several Philistine cities were plagued heavily when the ark was in their midst (1 Samuel 5). Ultimately, the ark was returned to Israel.

Articles in the Ark of the Covenant

God commanded Moses to put in the ark three items: a golden pot of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. What may seem strange to us today is that, hidden in the special golden box representing God’s presence were not treasures and precious gems, but three unlikely items: a jar of bread, a stick and two stones. What were these curious keepsakes and why did God want them in His ark?
The three articles represented some of the most embarrassing and disgraceful events in the history of the Israelites.

The pot of manna:

“This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Take an omer [portion for one man] of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the desert when I brought you out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 16:32)
God had provided this bread-like food for the Israelites when they grumbled during the wanderings in the desert. It was bread from heaven! He continued to provide the food daily and faithfully, but the people were not one bit thankful. They complained and wanted something else. The pot of manna was an uncomfortable reminder that despite what God had provided for them, the Israelites had rejected God’s provision.

Aaron’s staff that had budded:

The people, out of jealousy, rebelled against Aaron as their high priest. To resolve the dispute, God commanded the people to take 12 sticks written with the names of the leader of each tribe and place them before the ark overnight. The next day, Aaron’s rod from the house of Levi had budded with blossoms and almonds. God confirmed his choice of Aaron’s household as the priestly line. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.’” (Numbers 17:10) The staff reminded the Israelites that on more than one occasion, they had rejected God’s authority.

The two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments:

God had chosen the Israelites as His special people. For the Israelites to qualify for that distinction, God had demanded one thing. They must obey His Law, the Ten Commandments. This was a conditional agreement:
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
In response to God’s covenant the Israelites had said heartily, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) But they failed miserably in keeping God’s covenant with them. Over and over again, they violated God’s holy Law, and God made it clear to them the consequences of their sin by sending plagues, natural hazards and foreign armies upon them. The stone tablets in the ark were a reminder that the Israelites had rejected God’s right standard of living.

These three articles were preserved in the ark as an unpleasant symbol of mankind’s sins and shortcomings and a reminder of how we rejected God’s provision, authority and right standard of living. Many in the Church today teach that mankind is a helpless sinner and that it is impossible to follow God’s commands. And yet God has said, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.” (Deut. 30:11)
I don’t believe that God would command us to do something He knows is impossible for us. So the only logical conclusion is that the reason we refuse to follow God’s commands is mankind’s sinfulness. But this is where God’s provision comes in. When God looked down from His presence above the ark, He did not see the reminders of sin. They were covered by a necessary object — the atonement cover.

The Atonement Cover

Every year, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Bringing burning incense to shield his eyes from a direct view of God’s glory, he sprinkled blood from a bull onto the atonement cover for his and his household’s sins, then sprinkled blood from a goat for all the sins of Israel. God promised that when He saw the blood, it would cover over man’s sin. (To atone for means to cover over — hence the name atonement cover) God saw the atonement and it appeased His wrath. The Israelites found acceptance with God by believing His word to be true — that when their sins were covered by blood, God temporarily overlooked their sins, but Jesus, the Lamb of God, has become our permanent atonement cover. Through Jesus’ blood, our sins have been covered over. When God looks at us, He sees our atonement for sin–His own Son. Jesus laid down his life for us as an innocent sacrifice so that God would look on us and see his perfection. The atonement cover was also God’s throne in the midst of the Israelites. God is on His throne today in heaven and Jesus, our high priest, is at His right side. When we come to God now, we approach a throne of grace. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

How the articles in the Ark relates to God’s grace

The three items in the ark serve as a reminder of mankind’s shortcomings but since Jesus redeemed us from our sins they have taken on a different meaning.

The pot of manna:

When Jesus came and walked on earth, he didn’t reject God’s provision. Rather, He became God’s provision to us. Manna, the bread from heaven, in itself did not impart life. But Jesus told us, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.’” (John 6:32, 48-50)

Aaron’s budding staff:

Jesus didn’t reject God’s authority. Instead, He submitted Himself to the Father’s will and died on the cross.
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38)
But He came back to life like Aaron’s budding rod, “the first fruits from the dead.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)

The Ten Commandments:

Jesus didn’t reject God’s right standard of living. He lived a sinless life and obeyed God’s law perfectly, becoming our perfect sacrifice and intercessor. His sacrifice did not do away with God’s Law but instituted a new age that will witness the completion of it. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. ” (Matt. 5:17-18)

Many will quote Galatians 2:16 to prove that we no longer have to obey God’s Law: “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” But we must remember that the time and culture that the apostle Paul lived in many were teaching that by only by meticulously following God’s Law would one be considered righteous. I believe what Paul meant was: “Know that a person is not justified by the legalistic observance of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the legalistic observance of the law, because by the legalistic observance of the law no one will be justified.”

Paul also wrote to Timothy concerning God’s Torah, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” (1Tim. 1:8) The problem is not with the law but with us! Paul continues in verse 8 that the law is not made for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, etc. Let me be clear; our righteousness is not dependent on keeping God’s Law. It is only dependent on our trusting in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus, our Messiah.

We do not obey God’s commands so that God will love us…We obey God’s commands because we love Him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15 NAS)

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