The ark, which Moses made according to God's instructions, was by far the most holy of the articles placed in the tabernacle, being the only one which was placed in the Holy of Holies. (I am considering the mercy-seat as being a part of the ark; which, in fact, it was.) Yet there seems to be no logical reason for such importance, at least on the surface. True, the ark was the depository for the stone tables containing the ten commandments, but this function does not appear to have given the ark its peculiar holiness. Rather, the ark always seems to assume an importance which completely overshadows its physical contents, and its use as a depository for the commandments seems to be incidental to a more important function. It is also true that the ark, in its construction, materials, etc. is a type of Christ, but inasmuch as virtually every item of the tabernacle pointed in some way toward Christ, even this typology does not sufficiently account for the supreme importance of the ark.
The question as to the reason for this importance finds its answer in the fact that the Hebrew word aron, translated ark in Exodus 25:10-22, is translated coffin in Genesis 50:26. Coffins were not used by the Hebrews, but they were used in Egypt during the time of the Hebrew servitude, and the Hebrews applied their word aron, which literally denoted a box or chest, to these Egyptian coffins. (In modern Hebrew the term for coffin is aron methim: chest of the dead.) It is the writer's belief that the ark in the Holy of Holies was intended to suggest a coffin and therefore the idea of death to those Israelites who had the spiritual insight to grasp it. It is called the coffin of God, the coffin of the covenant of the LORD, the coffin of the testimony, etc. Let us examine each of these titles.
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As the coffin of God, the ark was a continual reminder to the spiritual Israelite that his God would one day die as a man for the sins of his people. In the very dawn of human history, man had been taught that without the shedding of blood is no remission. (Gen 4). Then, lest man should erroneously suppose that the blood of bulls and goats could release him from his sin, God called upon Abraham to offer up his son as a burnt offering, thereby picturing the fact that the true sacrifice for sin must be a human, not an animal sacrifice. The ark supplied the final truth to round out the picture - the sacrifice must not only be a bloody one, it must not only be a human one, but it must be God, himself, incarnate as a man! The ark therefore anticipated the incarnation and death of God the Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, of whom it was said:
"He shall save His people from their sins." Matt. 1:21.
Note how the triune nature of the Godhead was manifested in God's dwelling with Israel in the tabernacle:
1. God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, above the mercy-seat. Here he spoke to Moses and Aaron and revealed his will to them. See Exodus 25:22. This seems to suggest the person of God the Father - the member of the Godhead who reveals. See also Luke 10:21, Matt. 16:17, Rev. 1:1.
2. At the same time God seemed to be in the coffin - dead, yet alive. See Josh. 7:6-10; II Chron. 13:3. Does not this suggest God the Son, whose death is an ever-present reality (Rev. 5:6), yet who ever liveth to make intercession?.
3. Again at the same time. God was visibly manifested to the people in the cloud which hovered over the tabernacle and which led them in the way they were to go - precisely the office of God the Holy Spirit.
As the coffin of the covenant of the LORD, the ark was God's way of assuring the faithful in Israel that in time to come, he would make a new covenant with them, which, like the last will and testament of a testator, would be put in force by his death. Meanwhile the sins of the believing Israelite would be covered (atoned for) in anticipation of the advent of the New Covenant which would be put into effect by the death of its maker - God, himself. See Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:6, 9:18.
We now consider the significance of the law, or testimony, being placed in the ark, so that it was also known as the coffin of the testimony. The Epistle to the Colossians provides the answer. In Col. 2:14, we read:
"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross".
This passage teaches us that when Christ was nailed to the cross, the law, in a mystical sense, was nailed there also, at least as far as the believer is concerned.
"The nails of the cross, in piercing Christ, pierced the legal instrument which held us debtors, and nullified it. (Gal. 3:13 Rom. 7:4-6). Proselosas may suggest the further idea of nailing up the cancelled document, by way of publication. At the cross all may read, 'There is now no condemnation."' Pulpit Commentary, Loc. cit.
Thus the ark, as the coffin of the testimony anticipated the day when the handwritten ordinance which was against us would be nailed to the cross and consigned to the place of death.
As the coffin of God, the ark served to impress the people with the truth that all of the animal sacrifices were of no avail apart from the death of God in the person of a sacrificial substitute for sinful men. The brazen altar taught and continually reminded them of the doctrine of substitution. The ark taught and reminded them that God himself must be that substitute. That both the altar and the ark pointed to the same divine sacrifice is clearly seen in the sprinkling (on the Day of Atonement) of the blood, which had been shed at the altar, on the mercy seat, or lid, of the ark. No doubt one reason for the sprinkling of this blood was to portray the satisfaction for sin demanded by the law which was deposited in the ark. However, a more important reason for the sprinkling of this blood seems to be to identify the sacrifice slain at the altar with the One in the coffin.
The ark, or coffin, of God suggesting the death of Christ, was the basis (or support) for the mercy seat. It is the sacrificial death of Christ which makes a mercy-seat of what would otherwise be a judgment seat. Our sole claim to God's mercy rests upon the vicarious death of Christ who has redeemed us with his own blood.
John H Mattox