The Ark of the Covenant

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Numbers 10:33 – 36

So they set out from the mountain of the Lord and traveled for three days. The ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them during those three days to find them a place to rest. The cloud of the Lord was over them by day when they set out from the camp. Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” Whenever it came to rest, he said, “Return, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel.”

The day finally came for Israel to leave Mount Sinai. The journey to the Promised Land was to begin with a three-day trek. Even though the people had been standing still for eleven months, they had come a long way from the unruly, disorganized, rag-tag group of slaves and families that escaped the misery of slavery in Egypt. Now they were ready for the journey, the battles along the way, and most of all, the people were ready for victory. Their first victory was this successful three-day trip. Three days might not seem like a long time to you, but to Israel the end of the third day was cause to celebrate. They stayed together. All of them. Don’t forget, by some estimates there were upwards of 3 million Israelites. These old people, children, infirm folks, young children, adolescents, men and women somehow, by a combination of God’s grace, Moses’ leadership, and the people’s grit and determination, managed to trudge through the desert for three days, remaining in formation. Not a person was left behind; not a child wandered away.

It was an accomplishment, for sure. But we shouldn’t be too surprised. The people had, after all, the token of God’s great spiritual presence. I’m not referring to the cloud and the fire. I’m referring to the Ark of the Covenant. What was it? What purpose did it function? Does it really kill Nazis? There’s a lot funny ideas surrounding this box, so let’s take a closer look at it. The Ark of the Covenant was:

An ark

Really, it was a relatively small box, about four feet long, two feet wide, and two feet deep. But why do we call it an “ark?” The word “ark” comes from the Old English arc, which came from the Latin arca, meaning, “chest.” That Latin word is related to another one, arcēre, meaning “to defend” or “to hold off.” So this was a small chest used in defense and in holding off something or some one.

This ark was made of a special kind of wood that would not rot – it was incorruptible – and it was overlaid with pure gold. It must have been something to behold, not because it was particularly spectacular, but because it was golden box! It was precious. It must have been beautiful.

It was also a type of Christ. In other words, in some way designed by God, the ark of the Covenant somehow teaches us something about our Lord. The ark foreshadowed Christ. In the material used, wood and gold, we learn something of Jesus Christ’s two-fold nature: human (incorruptible wood) and divine (pure gold). One box, two materials. One Savior, human and divine. Our Lord’s human nature, like the special wood of the ark, remained incorruptible; sinless. Our Lord’s human nature is everything ours should have been and could have been had Adam not sinned. As a man, Jesus Christ was perfect. He was sinless. His human nature remained perfect. As God, Jesus Christ was also perfect, just as the gold that covered the wood was absolutely pure. Even as He walked this earth as a man, He was all God; totally divine. While the Bible teaches the Son of God laid aside some of His divine attributes temporarily, it teaches that He remained God.

The ark was a beautiful box that kept the Law even as that same Law found its place of fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The lid that closed up the ark was like the work of Christ, forming a seat or platform of mercy for God in His dealings with His people.

The Law that God gave the people, which they had already broken, was safely kept inside the ark and, from this point onward greatly honored by the people. Back then, God’s Covenant with His people was kept in a box, today His Covenant isn’t in a box, it’s in a Person: Jesus Christ.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:23 NKJV)

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. (John 6:37 NKJV)

We’re no better than those ancient Israelites. We break God’s law all the time – we are all sinners who still fall short of God’s glory – and yet Jesus is somehow able to say with a straight face: “I will by no means cast [you] out.” That’s a significant statement; a declaration you can count on and rejoice over.

Its position

The text tells us that as the Israelites marched on, the ark “went before them.” It was given the place of prominence and the people followed it, but when it rested, it sat in the middle of the camp.

To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (John 10:3, 4 NKJV)

The Shepherd is Jesus, and we are the sheep. Like the ark did, so Jesus does: He goes on before us. Just think about what that means. First, you are never alone! Do you realize what that means? It means that no matter where you are, no matter how many people have abandoned you, Jesus never will.

I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20 NKJV)

That’s a promise you can count on. Others may come and go during your life, but Jesus Christ is the Constant you can depend on.

Second, Jesus already walked where you are walking. Think that temptation you’re enduring is unique to you? Think again. Jesus already went through it. Ever thought the despair you’re feeling right now is something God could never understand? You couldn’t be more wrong.

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NKJV)

Lastly, think about this. What is the fear all men dread? Throughout the world, in every age and in every culture, fear of death is the ever-present fear that hangs over everybody’s head. Jesus went before you to the grave. And He rose again. Interestingly, our Lord’s journey from the grave to His resurrection took three days, the same number of days the Israelites traveled in our text.

I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2, 3 NKJV)

It’s purpose

The ark had a purpose in leading the Israelites: it was to lead them to a “place of rest.” God, through the ark, was caring for His people. God, through Jesus, is doing the same thing for us today. He cares for you. He knows what’s best for you. It takes wisdom – God’s wisdom – to look after somebody like you; somebody who likes to wander off and get lost in the tall grass, somebody who doesn’t look after his spiritual self. It takes God, through His Son, to find that place of peace and rest that you can’t find.

Come to me and I will give you rest—all of you who work so hard beneath a heavy yoke. Wear my yoke—for it fits perfectly—and let me teach you; for I am gentle and humble, and you shall find rest for your souls; for I give you only light burdens. (Matthew 11:28 – 30 TLB)

Ultimately, Christ’s work on the Cross was His searching out and finding that place of rest where we can find peace in God’s presence.

He abolished the Jewish Law with its commandments and rules, in order to create out of the two races one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace. By his death on the cross Christ destroyed their enmity; by means of the cross he united both races into one body and brought them back to God. So Christ came and preached the Good News of peace to all—to you Gentiles, who were far away from God, and to the Jews, who were near to him. It is through Christ that all of us, Jews and Gentiles, are able to come in the one Spirit into the presence of the Father. (Ephesians 2:15 – 18 GNB)

Where the ark rested, the people rested.

It’s power

We all remember that great scene in the move, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the ark of the Covenant melted those Nazis. Is that the kind of power the ark held? Let’s take another look at what we call, The Battle Cry of Moses:

Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you. (Numbers 10:35 NIV)

As we have seen, the ark of the Covenant had a practical function. It held the Law and it led the people as a token of God’s presence. The people had the cloud and the fire doing that, but the ark taught them the Law was kept by God for them; it reminded them, visually, that it was His Law, not Moses’. But in God’s plan, the ark symbolized His Son. In three big points, let’s look at that:

(1) The ark as a symbol of God’s presence. If this were not the case, the ark would have been a gold box, nothing more. It would have been dead weight.

For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we may boldly say: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5b, 6 NKJV)

That’s Jesus the author of Hebrews was writing about in those verses. Like the ark, Jesus Christ is proof of God’s presence in our lives. He’s always there, the living Word of God. He’s always with us. His power helps us. He keeps us safe. But Jesus – the embodiment of God’s mighty power – is just dead weight if we have no faith in Him. If we treat our Lord with contempt or if we simply ignore His presence, He can do nothing for us.

(b) The ark brought victory. Moses cried, “May your enemies be scattered.” This is some powerful language here; Moses is literally cursing God’s enemies. There was supernatural power in the ark; although probably not the kind of power we saw in the movie. It certainly did serve to bring the faith of Moses and the people of Israel into focus. It kept their thoughts on God.

The power of Christ is like that. He focuses our faith on Him and on God’s Word. But the power of Christ is more than that. His strength has defeated the enemy. The power of Satan has already been nullified by the power of Christ. That’s why John could write a verse like this:

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4 NKJV)

But you have to believe that. And you have to live like you believe it. Satan is still running around trying to convince Christians that he has some power. He doesn’t. Truth is, the only power Satan has over you is the power you give him.

(c) The ark was where God and man met together. For this point, we need to look at a verse in the book of Exodus:

And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee… (Exodus 25:21, 22 KJV)

This is what theologians refer to as the “theological relevance” of the ark. It really was much, much more than a gold box; much, much more than a symbol. It truly was the one place on earth where God met with man.

Can you see why we say the ark of the Covenant foreshadows Christ? That simple, gold box tells the whole story of the unsearchable mystery of the person of Jesus Christ in a way we may understand. The ark was not merely a repository of unimaginable power that could melt Nazis. It’s a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. (Colossians 2:9 KJV)

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