by J. V. Fesko
Read Exodus 25:23–30 (37:10–16)
In the last chapter we explored the Ark of the Covenant and now we continue to consider the furnishings of the tabernacle. In this chapter we examine the table for the bread of presence. Perhaps we have heard of this table and are vaguely aware of its existence in the tabernacle, but beyond that, we know little about its function. Perhaps we have heard of the show bread but do not know why it was placed in the tabernacle. I hope that after this chapter we will have a greater understanding and appreciation of the table for the bread of presence. In so doing, we will see its connections to Christ and of course to us as the people of God.
The table and the show bread
In the instructions for the construction of the table, verse 23 states that the table was to be approximately three feet long, one and a half feet wide, and approximately two feet tall. The table was overlaid with pure gold, and was made out of acacia wood, the same type of wood that was used for the Ark of the Covenant. From the description, it appears as though the sole purpose of the table was to hold the bread of presence (v. 30). This table was to be placed in the inner tabernacle, not the holy of holies, but the room just outside the holy of holies. Verse 26 states that the table was to have four rings, two on each side, and two poles that went through the rings so the table could be carried like the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, the table was to be moved about like the ark; it was to be moved without sinful human hands actually touching the table.
Verse 29 tells us that the table was to be equipped with different kinds of dishes, all of which were to be made of pure gold. One kind of dish or plate was to be used for the bread of presence and frankincense, which we read of in Leviticus: ‘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’ (Lev. 24:5–7).
There were other types of dishes: flagons (or pitchers) and bowls. According to verse 29, the pitcher, or flagon, was used to pour drink offerings into the bowls. The drink offering consisted of wine, though there is debate as to what purpose the drink offering served (Lev. 23:13). The Israelites were prohibited from pouring out a drink offering upon the altar outside of the tabernacle (Exod. 30:9). We also know that the high priest was only to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the mercy seat of the ark. In other words, it appears that the drink offering was placed on the table as a reminder, not that it was actually to be poured out upon any altar. The drink offering was likely to be consumed by the priests once a week.
Not only were the priests, and only the priests, supposed to consume the wine of the drink offering but they were also supposed to eat the bread of the presence. God instructed the Israelites in Leviticus: ‘Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant for ever. 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’ (Lev. 24:8–9). So, then, once a week on the Sabbath the priests were to eat the bread and drink the wine, and then set out a new pitcher of wine and freshly baked loaves of bread. You might remember the story of King David, when he was fleeing from Saul, how he came to the tabernacle and asked for food for himself and his companions, and the only food the priest had to offer was the bread of presence (1 Sam. 21:6).
Now the burning question is: What is the bread of presence? The term bread of presence is a little ambiguous, as it could mean simply the bread that is in the presence of God, or it could mean that God is in the bread. I think the former is the more likely answer—it is the bread that was in the presence of God. Remember that the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol and earthly throne of God, was only a few feet away behind the veil in the Holy of Holies. The bread, then, was not only to remind the Israelites, specifically the priests, of the presence of God just a few feet away but it was also to remind them of God’s gracious provision for Israel. It did this in two chief ways.
First, remember that God ratified the Mosaic covenant (Exod. 24:11) by having the elders of Israel sit down in his presence and consume a meal. When the priests ate the bread and drank the wine in the tabernacle, it was a reminder of the covenant that God had made with the people. The bread was a reminder of Israel’s redemption from Egypt as well as the ratification of the covenant on Mount Sinai. However, it was also a reminder of God’s gracious provisions for Israel’s physical needs.
Second, remember that when Israel first left Egypt they were in need of food and complained. God provided them with bread from heaven: ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not’ (Exod. 16:4). When God provided Israel with the bread from heaven, they were supposed to place some of the manna within the ark (Exod. 16:32–34). So then, the bread of presence was also likely a reminder of God’s gracious provision for Israel’s physical needs. Israel was hungry, and God fed them.
When we consider the table for the bread of presence, we also find another symbol that reminded Israel of God’s nearness. The bread of presence also reminded Israel of their gracious covenant redemption and God’s provision for Israel’s every need, even feeding them when they were hungry.
The table and bread in the light of the New Testament
When we cross over in the New Testament to explore the connections between the table for the bread of presence and Christ, I think there are links at several places. There are connections with Christ’s feeding of the five thousand, the Lord’s Supper, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Christ feeding the five thousand
I think the same elements that are connected to the bread of presence appear in Christ’s feeding of the five thousand. When the crowds grew hungry, Christ took the five loaves and two fish from the boy, multiplied them, and provided for the physical sustenance of the crowd. Incidentally, whether there is an implied connection or not remains elusive, but there were twelve baskets of bread left over, the same number of loaves of bread on the table in the tabernacle. What is also of significance is how Christ explains the significance of the miracle of feeding the five thousand.
After Jesus withdrew from the crowd, some of the people followed him, and so he turned and told them: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves’ (John 6:26). He then went on to explain that he was the true bread from heaven:
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’
This explanation of Jesus reveals clear connections between the manna and the bread of presence.
The tabernacle is a copy of the true tabernacle from heaven—the manna was from heaven, and by virtue of its presence in the tabernacle, the bread of presence was also bread from heaven. Christ identifies that he is the bread from heaven and the one who comes to him shall never hunger nor thirst. Just as the manna from heaven gave the Israelites life, and the covenant meal that the leaders ate in the presence of God also was a reminder of the life that God had given them in the exodus, so too anyone who believes in Christ receives life—eternal life.
The Lord’s Supper
We certainly see the connections between Christ, the Lord’s Supper, and the table for the bread of presence in the tabernacle. In Exodus 24 the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai to eat a covenant ratification meal in the presence of the Lord. Just prior to that meal Moses and the people of Israel ratified the Mosaic covenant and Moses sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the book of the covenant and over the people. These same elements appear, and uniquely so, in the Lord’s Supper. In fact, one connecting feature between the two events is the phrase, ‘the blood of the covenant’. This phrase only occurs in Exodus 24, the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, and the ninth chapter of Hebrews. In the Lord’s Supper, however, Christ ratified the new covenant with his own blood, not the blood of animals. Recall that the author of Hebrews connects the sacrifice of Christ, the blood of the covenant, with that which cleanses us from sin: ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ (Heb. 10:22).
Incidentally, some might wonder, upon what Old Testament practice is the Lord’s Supper then based? Is not the Lord’s Supper based on the Passover? Yes, the Lord’s Supper is based upon the Passover, but at the same time there is often overlapping biblical practice and imagery from other Old Testament passages that point to the same aspect of Christ’s work. For example, the Passover prefigures Christ’s sacrifice, as do the Old Testament sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. Here there is overlap with the Passover and the bread of presence. We should also realize that the practices of the New Testament, such as the Lord’s Supper, do not arise without precedent in the Old Testament. In other words, Christ did not invent the Lord’s Supper but instead the supper has its precedence here with the bread of presence in the tabernacle.
We can think of the connections in this way: the Old Testament priests would gather in the tabernacle and consume the bread of presence and drink the wine—both of which pointed to God’s gracious redemption and provision for his people. Likewise, the New Testament tells us that we are a royal priesthood, and we gather together to consume bread and wine as a covenant meal, as it is set apart and consecrated through prayer. The bread and wine, as we saw in Christ’s explanation, points to our redemption in Christ. We read in John’s Gospel:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever
The point is this: when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we commune and fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just as the Old Testament priests who ate the bread and wine were reminded of God’s presence just a few feet away in the holy of holies and were reminded of his gracious redemption, so too when we eat the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of Christ’s presence in our midst and of the redemption that we have through faith by his life, death and resurrection.
The Lord’s Prayer
At the same time we are also reminded of how God provides for our spiritual and physical needs. Remember that the bread of presence was supposed to remind the Israelites of how God had provided for Israel’s physical needs. It is most likely this connection that lies behind the famous statement in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matt. 6:11). This statement is also linked to the daily provision of the bread from heaven that the Lord gave Israel as they wandered in the wilderness until they entered the promised land. God therefore met the daily needs of his people far beyond what they could ever ask or imagine, and this was what the Old Testament priests were supposed to remember as they consumed the bread of presence.
Our connection through Christ
When we see the connections between the table, the bread of presence, and Christ, we are inevitably drawn to the connections to the church. As we can well imagine, the first important connection is ensuring that we look to Christ by faith. Do we realize that it is only through his shed blood that we have the forgiveness of sins? Do we realize that it is only by looking to Christ by faith, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension that we can possess eternal life? It is the reality of our redemption, then, that we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper. Just as the Old Testament priests consumed the bread and the wine in the presence of God to remind them of their redemption, so too we fellowship with Christ in like manner when we, New Testaments priests, consume the bread and wine of the covenant meal in Christ’s presence—he is present in the gathered body of the church.
These thoughts should cross our minds whenever we take the Lord’s Supper. Like Israel, we should give thanks to God for our gracious covenant redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover lamb. At the same time, we should also be reminded of the daily bread that our heavenly Father gives to us. God provided for Israel’s daily needs for food—he satisfied their hunger. How often do we take for granted so many of the creature comforts? I think we can easily do this because we see that many other people have the same things—food, homes, cars, clothes, money. Perhaps we get into the mindset that we possess these things because they are simply the consequence of our labours. We work, and then we buy and provide for our needs. Yet, if this passage reminds us of anything, it is that it is God who gives us our daily bread. We have jobs because God has been kind. We have clothes on our backs, money in the bank, roofs over our heads and food in our stomachs because God has graciously and over-abundantly provided for our needs.
Do we rise in the morning and grumble and mutter under our breath about how much we dislike our jobs? Do we complain because our house is not big enough, or the cars we drive not new enough? When we sit down to eat, do we begin to engorge ourselves giving little to any thought to the source of our meal? Perhaps in an agrarian society it was easier to be more grateful for a meal. For example, a farmer would have to till the soil, plant the seed, fertilize, water, and wait for the crop. Or the farmer would have to raise the calf, feed it, care for it, slaughter it, all before he could eat it. Naturally, agriculture and animal husbandry visually depend upon the providence of God—if there is no rain, then there are no crops. If there are no crops, then there is no food for man or animal. Just because we stroll down the aisle of our air-conditioned grocery store and load our shopping trolleys with food does not mean that we ought not to give thanks for our daily bread. Whether we sit for a meal, drive in our car, or go to work, we should give thanks to our gracious heavenly Father for providing us with our daily bread.
It is my prayer that as we continue to tour the tabernacle and its furniture we would learn to grow in appreciation for the person and work of Christ. In this case, that we would rejoice when we consume the Lord’s Supper, remembering his life, death and resurrection, our redemption, fellowshipping with our Lord and Saviour and looking to him by faith alone. I also pray that we would give thanks for God’s gracious daily provision for our every need. Indeed, we serve a gracious and loving covenant Lord who has given us our daily bread and the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ.
Fesko, J. V. (2012). Christ and the Desert Tabernacle (pp. 29–38). Darlington, England: EP Books.