The ark of the covenant was kept in the inner sanctum of the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle and the first temple. There was a heavy veil or curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The mercy seat was the golden lid that covered the ark. It had two golden cherubim figures on each end that faced one another. “You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:21-22).
The mercy seat in the tabernacle was where God, in His Shekinah Glory, would speak to Moses or Aaron. “And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you” (Exodus 30:6). “Now when Moses went into the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him” (Numbers 7:89).
The Shekinah Glory of God was always concealed within a cloud when He appeared to the children of Israel. “Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would go onward in all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:34-38).
The “ark” and all the furnishings that were in the tabernacle and later in the temple were patterned after the Most Holy Place in heaven. “As Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5). It is thought by most theologians that God is surrounded by cherubim in heaven. The mercy seat represents God’s throne in heaven, where He judges mankind.
After the tabernacle had been set up, anointed, and consecrated, the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel brought an offering for the dedication of the altar. At the end of the offerings, “Moses went into the tabernacle of meeting to speak with the LORD. He heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him” (Numbers 7:89). In 1 Samuel 4:4 and other places, God is described as being enthroned between the cherubim over the ark. Whenever the glory (shekinah) of the Lord filled the tabernacle or the first temple, you can be assured the Lord was above the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy place.
While in the wilderness, God gave the children of Israel three things that separated them from other nations: the Law, the Levitical system of sacrifice and worship of Yahweh, and His heavenly provision and sustenance in the form of manna. The ark contained three objects that God had given them to signify they were indeed His chosen people (Hebrews 9:4). However, these objects also represented the Hebrew’s rebellion against God. This rebellion was against His word, authority, and law, including the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd commandments (by making the golden calf) and the 5th commandment (not keeping the Sabbath).
Each item represents a particular type of sin committed against God. The first item was the two tablets of stone on which God had written the 10 Commandments. Ironically, the children of Israel violated the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” before God actually wrote the 10 Commandments on the two tablets of stone. This occurred when Moses went up the mountain to speak with God and the Hebrews pressured Aaron to make them a golden calf idol (Exodus 32). Throughout the ages, Israel proved they were totally incapable of obeying the Lord’s laws.
The second item in the ark was the budded rod of Aaron. This occurred after the rebellion of Korah and about 250 men who rose up and challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron, especially in spiritual matters between the LORD and the children of Israel. After the earth had swallowed Korah and his household and fire devoured the other rebels, Moses gathered 12 rods from the leaders of each tribe and placed them in the tabernacle of meeting in front of the Testimony (mercy seat of the ark) where God met with Moses. The Lord told Moses, “And it shall be that the rod of the man whom I choose will blossom; thus I will rid Myself of the complaints of the children of Israel, which they make against you” (Numbers 17:5).
The next day Moses went into the tabernacle, and sure enough, there was Aaron’s rod which had put forth buds, produced blossoms, and yielded ripe almonds. “And the Lord said to Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod back before the Testimony, to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put their complaints away from Me, lest they die” (Numbers 17:10).
The third item that was kept in the ark was a golden bowl of manna. Manna was a supernatural bread from heaven that God had rained down on the children of Israel when they were in the wilderness. This occurred after the Hebrews had complained to Moses and Aaron (and ultimately God) that they didn’t have meat and bread to eat like they did in the “good old days” in Egypt. The Lord commanded Moses and the people to only gather the manna for six days and not on the Sabbath. The first time the word “Sabbath” is mentioned is in Exodus 16:23, referring to not working on the seventh day by gathering manna. One was not to work when gathering the bread from heaven.
But once again, the children of Israel did not obey the Lord. “Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:27-30).
These God-given objects were all kept in the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat covering on the top. When God dwelt in the tabernacle (and later the first temple), He resided or appeared in the cloud (Shekinah Glory) above the mercy seat. On the annual Day of Atonement, Aaron or the High Priest at the time would bring the bull of the sin offering, which was for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house.
“Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times” (Leviticus 16:12-14).
Once Aaron (and later his lineage) was appointed High Priest, the LORD gave Moses the instructions for the Day of Atonement, which was to be an annual event. On this day, Aaron would offer blood sacrifices for himself and the children of Israel. Here is what happened on that first day of Atonement: “Then Aaron lifted his hand toward the people, blessed them, and came down from offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people, and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:22-24).
Of course, the Levitical High Priest performing his duties on the annual Day of Atonement is a typology of the High Priest in heaven (not of the Levites but of the order of Melchizedek), Jesus Christ, making intercession before God for the sins of the “saints” on earth. The “cloud” of smokey incense represents the cloud of God which accompanies His Shekinah Glory. Sprinkling the blood on and around the mercy seat “seven times” represents Jesus’ holy blood, as seven represents spiritual perfection and completeness. This is, however, where the typology ends. Jesus does not need to offer His blood on the mercy seat in heaven. It is “by” His blood as the sacrificial Lamb of God, which was offered only one time on the cross, that sins are forgiven. The rituals of the Day of Atonement do not need to be repeated every year in heaven. Atonement was achieved at the cross.
So, what’s in the ark of the covenant in heaven? I believe it is empty, except for one thing… Grace. God’s grace is granted to those who have faith. “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11). The old covenant of the Law, represented by the objects in the ark on earth, have been replaced by the new covenant of grace. The 10 Commandments written on the two tablets of stone have been replaced by the new covenant of Jesus Christ. The budding rod of Aaron, which represents the Levitical priesthood, has been replaced by the order of Melchizedek’s priesthood, namely Jesus the Christ. The bowl of manna has been replaced by the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ. He will supply all our needs.
The High Priest, Jesus, does not need to place any blood on the mercy seat, for the blood of atonement has already been shed on the cross, once and for all. Our sins – past, present, and future – are not only “covered up,” they are forgiven and forgotten forever. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, So the LORD pities those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11-13).
“Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be'” (Romans 4:16-18).
We will examine Jesus’ blood atonement more closely in my next article.