If you are around a Reformed church long enough, you will probably hear the term means of grace. This refers to the divinely established ways we encounter and commune with God as we learn and experience His grace through Christ’s redemption. These include the ability to hear the Word as it is read (1 Tim. 4:13) and proclaimed (Rom.10:14–17), the avenue to God in prayer (Col. 4:13) and supplication through Christ (John 14:13), and the sacraments or “visible words” of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:26) and baptism (Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26). But do we think about these means as benefits themselves, reflecting the level of intimacy and access we have to God won for us by Christ and His covenant? One way to appreciate these means is to reflect on the parallel means of grace before the era of the New Testament church. When we see the parallels, it can make us even more grateful for the benefits of the new covenant won by Christ’s work.
Old covenant worship looked different from new covenant worship. When reading Exodus and Leviticus, perhaps some of us have longed to see the majesty and immanence of tabernacle and temple worship of the old covenant. It certainly communicated the glory and grandeur of God in relation to His people. Tabernacle worship also communicated the deep divide between God and His people. Tabernacle worship communicated the majesty and eminence of God. Between the people of God and His presence were barriers of curtains and veils. People communed with God, but through intermediaries of priests. All the elements of our communion with God and seeing of grace were there, but placed behind walls of separation. The tabernacle itself was divided into three main sections. The courtyard contained a large altar for sacrifice (Ex. 27:1–8), along with a basin for the priests to wash in before and after sacrifice (Ex. 30:17–21). While not directly parallel, one is reminded of the image of washing in baptism as one sees the basin communicating a similar necessity of cleansing to enter the presence of God. God’s holy presence was demonstrated by the whole tent of the tabernacle, where only the priests could enter the next section of the Holy Place.
The Holy Place contained its own means of worship seen in the lamp to give light (Ex. 25:31–40). One thinks of the image of light in the Word written (especially Ps. 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet.”) and ultimately to the Word made flesh in Christ (John 1:1–3, 14). The Holy Place also contained a table where “the bread of the Presence” sat until the priest would eat and enjoy table fellowship with God (Ex. 25:30). This table of communion with God was not with all of God’s people, but only for the priests to eat on behalf of the people. The final item in the Holy Place of the tabernacle was another altar before a curtain, an altar of incense (Ex. 30:1–10). This was a place of prayer, and as the prayers of the priest would be given for the people, the incense would rise up, symbolizing the words being taken to heaven, much like the incense bowls symbolizing the prayers of the saints in Revelation 5:8. Occasionally, sacrifices would be offered there, as reconciliation needed to be made for the priest, who was the representative of the people, to be in the presence of God.
Finally, there was an area behind a thick veil (Ex. 26:33), which was the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could enter. There was the ark of covenant, which housed the final altar, the mercy seat, where blood was sprinkled to make atonement for the sins of God’s people. There it was said, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex. 25:22).
Prayer was seen in the altar of incense, the Lord’s Supper was seen in the table with the bread of the Presence, the light shone as did the Word of God, and the basin and the baptismal both displayed the need for washing. Yet, the contrast would not be felt mainly in the grand ornamentation of the furniture and the tabernacle tent but rather in the separation of the people from the presence of God. Only priests would enter the Holy Place for communion and prayer, and only one high priest would enter the Most Holy Place. Much of old covenant worship happened away from the sight of the people, with a “dividing wall,” as it were, between God and His sinful people.
Seeing the parallels of the means of grace in tabernacle worship and new covenant worship gives us a greater appreciation of all that Christ won for us in His mediation, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us: the High Priest of the order of Melchizedek—Jesus (Heb. 7:17)—entered the Most Holy Place, into the presence of God, to make atonement with His own blood on the mercy seat (Heb. 9:21). Do we appreciate the access we have now that was previously off limits in the Holy Place? Do we appreciate that we are invited to a table to dine with God, and not merely by proxy with a priest behind a curtain? Do we appreciate that prayer is mediated by Christ, so we all can approach the “altar of incense,” as it were, in prayer in Jesus’ name? “The true light, which gives light to everyone,” not just the priests, “was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Not only that, but we are told we have greater access because the curtain of separation was torn in two, from top to bottom, when Jesus breathed His last (Mark 15:38).
With all the parallels, there’s also a remarkable contrast between tabernacle worship and new covenant worship. We see the distance of the tabernacle and the restricted means there and the intimate access we have with God in Christ. We have access to sit at the table and commune with God personally in the Lord’s Supper. We can have access to God in prayer without mere human mediation, as we come to our High Priest who is God Himself. We see the light of God in Jesus Christ, and His Word is better than the pale light of the lampstand.
God has always had mediums, or means of grace, to communicate Himself to His people. But rather than looking to the old grandeur of the tabernacle with longing, we should remember that all those things pointed forward to Christ and the greater fellowship to be had between God and His people in new covenant worship. When we come together, with sheer joy, let us hear the Word, come to the table, and offer prayers as those who have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:14).