Beginning with the shewbread table, this series focuses on objects within the holy place and how they inform our role as priests in the order of Melchizedek. Since the earthly tabernacle models the heavenly sanctuary, the Torah is a rich source for this purpose. The New Testament offers an outline, a starting point. We are a “holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5) and a royal priesthood to proclaim his excellencies (vs 6).
Only priests might enter the holy place. To the right of the entrance was the shewbread table, set with the bread of the presence, in Hebrew “bread of the face(s)”. It should not suggest manna, a gift from God to his people. Rather, its 12 loaves were free-will offerings to God from his people (Ex 35:13,26;39:36). The shewbread represents the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus utilized this imagery when he called himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35), as did the apostle Paul in describing “the bread which we break” as a sharing in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). We are the bread upon the table. We are free-will offerings. Psalm 110 designates our Lord as “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” whose “people shall be willing [are freewill offerings] in the day of thy power” (vss 3,4). Since all in Christ are priests [for that matter, God purposed all Israel to be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6)], our priestly sacrifice consists of worship-praise, thanksgiving, consecration and testimony. The bread is our presence before his presence in reverance and adoration. The table holds no place for prayers of supplication, intercession or confession. Though esteemed by God and recognized elsewhere in the Holy Place, they are not gifts.
We learn in Leviticus that the bread of the presence, called shewbread in the KJV, is an offering made by fire (Lev 24:9) and such offerings are God’s food (21:6). Yet, the shewbread itself was never burnt. Every sabbath, fresh loaves replaced the old, and new incense was laid out with them. Now, this incense was not the compound burnt on the altar of incense. Rather, it was pure frankincense, the incense required when an Israelite made a grain offering to God. It served as “a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD ” (Lev 24:7). The frankincense was burnt on the bronze altar in lieu of the bread, as a soothing aroma to the Lord (Lev 2:1,2). Afterwards, the priests, and they alone, ate the bread in an holy place. This has great significance for us.
The incense is a pleasing aroma, because God delights in his people (Ps 14:4). We are his food. (If this is jarring, recall the Jews’ reaction when Christ told them to eat his body and drink his blood). We partake of him and he of us. Food is also sustenance, and an omnipotent and very gracious God channels its nourishment to us, the body of Christ. Hence, it is not possible to offer praise without benefit to ourselves. Just as the Levitical priests offered up incense and then were fed its bread, so the continuous ritual of the shewbread is acted out in our spiritual lives and priesthood, if we are faithful to present ourselves before him.
This same practice bears on what Jesus told his disciples on being asked to increase their faith. He replied: “But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? (Luke 17:7,8). We, the servant, feed God, the master, then we are fed. Here, we are strengthened with an increase of faith. When we spend time in his presence, as the bread of the presence, we dwell in his milieu, and faith is perception into that realm.
Jesus’ parable also mentions drink, so we return to the table to find it set with golden dishes to hold bread and incense and with golden flagons and bowls for pouring (Ex 25:29; Lev 4:7). A drink ordering is contemplated, but no more is said about it. This contrasts with what we see in Numbers 15:1-12. Wine libations were required with burnt offerings from the herd or flock and the amount of wine was even specified for bullock, ram, lamb and goat. A mystery surrounds our wine offering and an absence of detail.
Wine and bread are emblematic of the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek brought a provision of bread and wine for Abraham (Gen 14:18). Before his crucifixion, Christ, our high priest, offered up unleavened bread and a cup of wine for us. Similarly, the table holds our ministry of wine and bread to him. The ministry of bread is worship. What is our ministry of wine?
Wine carries many varied associations in the bible, some negative. For our purpose, it must hold a positive nuance, a wine that “cheereth God” (Judges 9:13). Its meaning must harmonize with the context. We have a table set with food. Accordingly, we note passages that reference God, wine and feasts. The Lord includes choice aged-wines in his banquet for all peoples (Isa 25:6). In the gospels, Jesus spoke of drinking wine new with his disciples in the kingdom of God . Then, there is the wedding feast in Cana and it’s here we find a real clue to our ministry of wine.
The feast at Cana lasted a customary seven days. At some point, Jesus’ mother told him the wine was gone. He asked how this concerned either of them for “his hour had not yet come ” (John 2:4). He was alluding to his own wedding, the marriage supper of the lamb. Then, as bridegroom, it would be his responsibility to provide the wine. To honor this future event, he turned water into wine. Had he merely wished to spare his host embarrassment, or comply with a mother’s wish, he would have purchased wine with his disciples.
We can understand why Jesus looked forward to his role as bridegroom. Scripture frequently portrays God as lover and husband. The Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, honors the love of man and woman, and its here that we find our meaning: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine” (SOS 1:2). This next verse is striking: “He brought me to his banqueting hall [literally, house of wine] and his banner over me was love” (2:4). Another is: “How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! How much better is thy love than wine….”(4:10). Our wine is a metaphor for love. This is the wine upon the shewbread table and why scripture describes no measure to it.
As we bring the gift of bread before him, our attitude should be: “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lk 17:10). The wine signifies that this offering is made in love and fellowship. Nor should we be surprised, when more often than not, God beckons us to join him at table, not as a servant, but a dear child, a close friend and confident, or as his beloved. Then, we feast upon each other, a sublime, delicious meal, a foretaste of heaven.