Over the past two weeks, we've learnt that the intricacy and detail of the ceremonial law tell us something glorious about Jesus. These passages that detail the ceremonial law aren't dry and drab passages that fixate on specifications and ornaments - these are passages that prepare our hearts for the greatest person to have ever walked this earth. So what does the table for the bread of the Presence and the Golden Lampstand have to tell us about Jesus? Read on to find out more!
(A) The bread of the Presence symbolises fellowship with God and teaches dependency on God (Exo 25:23-30)
Our passage begins with similar specifications to the ark of the Covenant. The dimensions and materials of the table are precisely detailed because these are God’s plans, and God’s planned to let His people catch a glimpse of heaven. The table was not impressive in size, but it was covered by a molding of gold - reiterating that anything in the proximity of God’s holy presence was to convey the magnificence and holiness of His presence.
Although the bulk of the details in our passage provide specifications about the table, we get a sense from v30 that the focus of the passage is actually on the bread of the Presence. Leviticus 24:5-9 tells us more about the bread of the presence.
You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the Lord. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the Lord's food offerings, a perpetual due.
From Leviticus, we see that twelve loaves of the Bread were to be set before God regularly. These twelve loaves represented the twelve tribes of Israel (v8) in their covenantal relationship before God, and the loaves were to be consumed by the High Priest, who represented Israel before God. Some scholars believe that this was a borrowed practice akin to that of Ancient Mesopotamian religions, where food offerings were made to Mesopotamian gods in a bid to curry favour. Two facts dispel such interpretations: First, we remember that these instructions came after God had chosen and saved Israel for Himself. God is the first mover in this relationship. Second, God makes it clear in Deuteronomy 7:6-8 that Israel was chosen not because of their intrinsic greatness or extrinsic ability to provide God with the greatest number of offerings possible, but simply because of God’s elective love. In fact, the rest of the Bible makes it abundantly clear that “God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).
So what did this food offering mean? When considered together with the plates, dishes, flagons, and bowls for incense and drink offerings, we get a sense of this act of worship was symbolic of a family meal at home. Family meals have lost their regularity and sparkle for many of us today, but they were extremely significant in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. To break bread together at table was to signify acceptance, hospitality, and a common dwelling place. It is incredible enough to think that God would made a dwelling place for Himself amongst a sinful people. Even more so, to think that God would invite them into communion with Him.
But why bread? The vast array of choices for the modern palate dull the significance of bread in this passage. We must remember that bread was essential for survival in those days. The bread-element would have also called to remembrance the provision of manna that the Israelites first experienced in Ex 16. In fact, this provision of daily sustenance was their lived reality! As God was giving them instructions for their commemoration of His providence over their lives, they were utterly dependent on His providence for their survival. So the bread of the Presence poignantly signified God’s steadfast providence over Israel. The New Testament has much to say about God’s providence as well. James reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from God, in whom there is no shadow or variation due to change (Jas 1:17). And Jesus famously taught His disciples to pray “give us our daily bread” (Matt 6:11), which reminds us that God is the one who sustains our daily needs.
Still, many of us struggle to think of our God as our Provider, perhaps barring moments of crisis where we realise our desperate need for divine intervention. Why is this so? Perhaps one of the greatest ills of modernity is the prudish humanism it elevated. In alignment with Rom 1:25, we tend to see that we are eager to claim credit when our needs are met, or attribute credit to something of the created order. The Bible describes this rejection of God’s role in provision as sin. It is nothing short of glory-robbing behaviour, so we should not take this lightly. Consider the last time you prayed before a meal. Did you rush through it? Even worse, did you feel ashamed about it when you were in the company of others? The bread of the Presence was a poignant reminder to Israel, and it is a powerful wake-up-call for us. Every good and perfect gift comes from above, and it would do our souls great good to reverence the Giver over His gifts.
This providence extended beyond the provision of material needs, and the Israelites knew it. Moses clearly states in Deut 8:3-18 that the provision of manna in the wilderness was to teach the Israelites of this truth - that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. God’s provision for our daily material needs is meant to point us to recognise that the provision of life in its fullness is to be cherished and sought after in God alone. God always intended to guide His people in every aspect of their life, and this was to be done by knowing Him through His word. So we see the Psalmist remind us of key truths:
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to Your word…I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you…In the way of your testimonies I delight, as much as in all riches.
But it is not enough for us to know these truths, and even less so to be reminded of them, for feelings of guilt and shame pile up when we remember the extent to which we have fallen short of God’s ways. What we need is for our soul to be radically changed and constantly nourished - where might we find bread for the soul?
It is in this context that we begin to understand Jesus’ words in Jn 6, where He refers to Himself as the Bread of life. The language Jesus employs is, frankly, graphic. Jesus is the bread of life, and we partake of this bread by “eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drink(ing) His blood” so that we may “have life” (Jn 6:53). In rejecting the absurdity that Jesus is referring to some sort of cannibalistic ritual, some believe that Jesus is proleptically referring to the Lord’s Supper. However, John’s gospel and the immediate of the context show little emphasis of sacramentalism, and it was unlikely that the people Jesus were directly addressing would have understood it as such.
I believe the message here is more forward. Ancient cultures would have understood it. Modern cultures probably do not. If you were to ask a child where his loaf of bread came from, he would probably say “the supermarket!" If he were brand conscious, he might even say “Gardenia!” But everyone at the time of Jesus would have understood this simple truth: In order for me to eat the bread that sustains me, something has to die. And since I will die without bread, which is my dietary staple, something has to die.
By referring to Himself as the bread of life, Jesus was saying that He is the soul’s staple. There is no way to eternal life apart from partaking of Him. But in order for us to partake of Him, He has to die. And so He did. By exchanging His life for ours on the Cross, He called us into knowing His soul-nourishing and life-transforming love. Do God’s ways seem impossible to you? Does sin’s vice-like grip on your life seem unbreakable? Partake of Jesus, the bread of life. He promises us that all who turn away from a life of self-justification and self-determination have shared in His death. And if you have shared in His death, you share in His life.
One damning lie that lies at the heart of every sin is the lie that God is not a good God. The bread of the Presence reminds us that God calls His people into loving communion with Him. It tells us that God is a loving Father who provides for His people’s needs. And it points forward to the soul-nourishing and life-transforming work of Christ. Together, they help us to know the simple yet powerful truth that God is a good God. We can trust in Him, and in so doing, find His ways desirable over the riches and the pleasures of this world.
(B) The Golden Lampstand reminds us that God is the source of life and light (Exo 25:31-40)
If the instructions for the table and the bread of the Presence were like an ornate painting, the instructions for the Golden Lampstand would be a majestic tapestry. The instructions and symbols can seem intimidating. How might we make sense of all this detail?
Consider the different core elements that make up the lampstand: A base, stem, and branches form its foundational structure. Adorning this structure are calyxes, which protect flowers as they blossom, and the blossoming flowers. Put together, they seem to form an almond tree, and the process of a flowering almond tree seems to be represented here. This symbolic life-giving structure births the fruit of light, as seven lamps adorn the end of the branches.
Before going into the symbolic significance of this structure, remember that the Holy Place that housed the table for the Bread and the Golden Lampstand was shrouded by thick and heavy curtains. These lamps would have been the only source of light for the priests navigating this space.
The symbolism is clear. The symbol of a flowering tree with lamps as its fruit reminded the people of Israel that God is the sole provider of life and light. Bible scholars have remarked that this imagery would have been reminiscent of the events at Creation - events that the Israelites would have been firmly acquainted with. The first pages of the Bible remind us as much.
In the beginning…the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep…And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Life sprang forth thereafter, and we eventually find ourselves in a garden full of God’s presence and provision. In this garden, also, was the tree of life that bore the fruit of eternal life. The Bible is admittedly vague of the exact significance of the almond. Philip Ryken notes,
The white almond flowers may have been a symbol of hope, because (like crocuses and daffodils) they were the first to appear in the springtime, and thus their early blossoms held the promise of the growing season.
But most Bible scholars are agreed on that the flowering tree represents the tree of life. In this representation was also an element of hope, for we remember that Adam and Eve were driven away from the garden of Eden, and away from the tree of eternal life. Here, God is teaching His people that He is the only true light, and the only way back to life eternal.
The New Testament explanation of this is clear. John tells us that Jesus the Word of God is God, and was present at creation.
All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
What does it mean that Jesus was the true light? In John’s gospel, the language of “light” is wrapped up with connotations of life rightly understood and lived before God. We live in a world full of competing claims for the real answer to life’s biggest questions. Some say that a truly fulfilling life is found in a meaningful job that maximises your potential and contributes in a sustainable fashion to the growth of society-at-large. Others clamour that real fulfilment is found when you find your soulmate and enter into a nourishing relationship. More preach that consistent moral practice is the key. Still there are more who say that gratifying one’s pleasures in all of hedonism’s many forms is the actual way of fulfilment. There is something true about the fulfilment that one can find in each of these ways. But the Bible tells us that the only true way, or the only true light, is found in Jesus Himself.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. Apart from Him, all we know are reflections of the light and shadows of the heavenly. Apart from Him, we will never know what is truly fulfilling in life and pleasing to God. But Jesus came into the world that we might know Him and find true life, for in Him is life and the light of men.
There are two immensely practical areas that demand our consideration. First, if true life and light can only be found in Jesus, what stops people from coming to Him? An encounter in John 12 is illuminating. The voice of God the Father thundered from heaven, testifying to the mission of Jesus and the glory that was to be revealed. All who were gathered were shocked - Jesus was really the promised Saviour! Thereafter, Jesus picked up on the light motif, warning all who were gathered to “walk while (they had) the light, lest darkness overtake (them).” If they believed in Him, they too would share in His light (Jn 12:36). And then John records for us a terrifying observation:
“Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in Him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God."
You can know many great things about Jesus and yet remain in darkness. You can even believe many great truths about Jesus and still remain in darkness. For as long as you love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God, you will remain in darkness. If you are not a Christian and you are reading this, the point here is not fear-mongering. Rather, if Jesus is truly who He says He is, are you willing to bow your knee in worship? Nothing short of that will do. For as long as you love the glory of created things, you will forever bow your knee to those things in worship. In doing so, you have no part in the life and light that Jesus alone brings.
Second, all who have come to the life and light that Jesus brings are called to be a light unto the world. Jesus makes that clear in the Sermon on the Mount, where He says,
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Not do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
But what does this look like practically? Is the point of this exhortation to carry our little lamps with us wherever we are in the world - to our workplaces, our families, our friends, and our loved ones - and be a light to them? To share a little cheer, and make the world a brighter place? No. There are exhortations for personal witness, but this is not the point of Jesus’ exhortation.
First, remember that this was not said in the era of electric lighting and rural-urban migration. If you were a city on a hill, you were are the only beacon of light in a world that is otherwise pitch black. God may give His grace to the common functioning of this world, but relative to the radiance of His true life and light, all that the world knows is jet-black darkness.
Second, readers of modern translations sometimes miss out on the nuance of this text, because the English language shares the same word for the singular and plural “you”. But the original language conveys a significant difference. When Jesus said, “You are the light of the world”, He was using the plural “you”.
Friends, the focal point here is not about your personal witness, however important that is. The focal point here is whether you - as a Christian body - are a communal city of light. The world knows darkness, and we know it too. Power grubbing behaviour in the workplace is far too common. The love of money erodes even the purest of intentions. Lust and its sway despoils even the best of relationships. Self-actualisation and justification is the name of the game - often at the expense of the common good.
So what do your Christian relationships look like? Jesus says that this is the church’s witness to the world - that we love one another just as He has loved us. (Jn 13:34) Are your relationships in the body of Christ marked by this self-sacrificial and other-edifying love?
Let’s be extremely practical. Is there unresolved bitterness, anger, guilt, or even shame in your christian relationships? Choose love. You are the light of the world. If you are in a romantic relationship, do you desire the holiness of your significant other more than the fulfilment of you pleasure? Choose holiness. You are the light of the world. Is there quarrelling, backbiting, dissension, and despoiled relationships in your church? Make peace. You are the light of the world. And in an age where louder voices shout over wiser minds, what is the testimony of your church to a world that desperately needs to know the love and grace of Jesus? In your defence of the truth, are you more known for what you are against than what you stand for? To be extremely clear, if someone from the LGBT community visited your church, would they know more of that winsome fellowship, genuine affection, and glorious grace that Jesus promises? Or would their primary experience be that of boycotts and disapproval? The same questions apply to every sinner that steps through the doors of our churches. Do we reflect a genuine reverence for God, delight in His word and ways, and love for His people?
These are hard hitting questions. But they are not meant to stir up feelings of guilt or shame. These are not KPIs that are being set out, and the call to action isn’t to draft up a 5 year master plan. Rather, these questions are meant to portray the reality of Christian life as Jesus frames it. We are the light of the world. And we are able to be the light of the world not because of incredible strategies or superior moral compasses. We are able to be the light of the world because we have the bread of Life, through whom we find the grace and strength for every good endeavour. Will you trust in Him, dwell with Him, and partake of Him today?