One of the most amazing biblical-theological developments in Scripture has to do with the anti-typical fulfillment of the symbolism of the ark of the covenant. The ark was a box, overlaid with gold, that remained in the Most Holy place. It consisted of three levels. The lower lever was the inside of the box–in which was Aaron’s rod that blossomed, the Ten Commandments and the golden bowl full of manna. The middle level was the mercy seat itself–on which was sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice. The upper level was the place where the glory of God shone forth between the two Angels facing one another. The ark was a type of Christ, and a symbol of the saving work of God.
Aaron’s rod that blossomed drew its significance from the historical account from which it emerged (Num. 16-17). Aaron’s priesthood was called into question by jealous men. God called the rebels, together with Aaron, to take their rods and lay them out. In order to show who the Lord had chosen to carry out the priestly functions, the rod belonging to the Lord’s anointed would blossom. This miraculous act demonstrated that the Lord appoints whom He will to be His Priest. Jesus is the great High Priest, chosen by the Father in the eternal counsels. The rod was placed in the ark to show that Christ, in and of Himself, is the chosen of the LORD (Isaiah 42:1).
The Ten Commandments were placed in the ark for safekeeping; it also represented the fact that the moral Law stood forever before the presence of Him who gave it. In redemptive history, this act also represented the keeping of the Law in Christ. He is the One who fully and finally obeyed all the commands of God and fulfilled the Covenant in which they were given.
The golden bowl full of manna represented that life-sustaining food that God gives His people in Christ. When Israel was in the wilderness,the Lord sent them the most magnificent heavenly bread. Not knowing where it came from the people called it “Manna” (lit. ‘What is it?’). When Jesus came He told Israel, “Moses did not give 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 (John 6:32-33). Christ is the true Manna. But just as the Israelites ask about the earthly manna, saying, ‘What is it?’ so they ask about the heavenly manna, saying, ‘Who are You?’ The Lord will forever feed the true Israel with Christ.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the ark was the mercy seat. Here, the blood was sprinkled when the Priest went into the Most Holy place once a year. When the Lord saw the blood He would come to dwell over the mercy seat. The blood of sprinkling represented the blood of Jesus that atoned for sin. The transgressions of the people formed the barrier between them and the presence of God. Our violations of the moral law have separated us from our God. According to His justice, when He looks at His image bearers the Lord must do so through the lens of the law. The dilemma is removed, however, through the blood of Jesus. What stood between the Law of God and the Presence of God was the blood. When the Lord saw the blood His wrath was satisfied. Through the blood of Jesus the transgressions of God’s people have been removed. He sees believers–not through the lens of the law, but through the lens of the blood of Christ.
The climax of the ark’s symbolism was revealed in the place where the glory of the Lord dwelt. The Shekinah glory, as it is called, was manifest over the mercy seat and between the two angels. This was surely a picture of the heavenly glory of God, Angels surrounding Him and crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” But it was also a picture of the fulfillment of the restoration of the presence of God with His people in Christ. When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb looking for the body of Jesus, she did not find Him at first; instead, she saw two angels–one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been laid. It was the fulfillment of that to which the ark had pointed. In the resurrection of Christ, the glory of God shines brightest. He has accomplished everything that God required for salvation. He kept the law, shed the blood, and rose in glory. The Angels in the empty tomb were the fulfillment of what the Angels over the ark symbolized. In 1 Peter 1:12 we are told that the things of Christ–foretold through the prophets in the Old Testament and accomplished in the New–are the “things which Angels desire to look into.” Richard Sibbes drew this connection when he wrote:
His first appearance of all was made to Mary, the woman out of whom He had cast seven devils, Luke 8:2. She was much beholding to Him, and therefore loved much, Luke 7:46…She expressed her love of Christ by her desire of finding Him…As she wept, she stooped down and looked into the sepulchre, and there saw two Angels in white…They were one at the head, and the other at the feet. As in the law, when the mercy seat was made, two cherubim were also framed, and placed one at the one end, and the other at the other end thereof, with their faces looking toward one another, Exodus 25:20. And, when Christ was risen, there were two angels, one at the head, another at the feet, to show that peace was to be expected in the true propitiatory, Jesus Christ…Peace was made between heaven and earth.1
Geerhardus Vos also noted the parallel between the Ark of the Covenant and the empty tomb when he wrote:
The place was doubtless charged with the atmosphere of mystery and wonder angels bring with themselves when entering into our world of sense. And yet no tremor seems to have run through her, no feeling of awe to have made her draw back. A greater blindness to fact is here than that which made her miss the sign of the empty grave. What more convincing evidence of the truth of the resurrection could have been offered than the presence of these two angels, silently, reverently, majestically sitting where the body of Jesus had lain? Placed like the Cherubim on the mercy-seat, they covered between themselves the spot where the Lord had reposed, and flooded it with celestial glory. It needed no voice of theirs to proclaim that here death had been swallowed up in victory. Ever since the angels descended into this tomb the symbolism of burial has been radically changed.2
1. Richard Sibbes The Complete Work of Richard Sibbes vol. 6 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863) p. 419
2 Geerhardus Vos Grace and Glory (The Reformed Press, 1922) p. 96