The Heavenly Sanctuary
Scripture: 1 Kings 8:27-30; Rev. 4-5; 21:22; Ps. 11:4-7; Heb. 8:1-2
Leading Question: How can the sanctuary idea and the picture of a sanctuary be helpful in our search for God?
1. Mental Pictures. In both Testaments, the concept of “sanctuary” is a real one. “Have them make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them,” declares the Lord in Exod. 25:8 (NIV). “Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you,” he was told (25:9). In similar fashion, the book of Hebrews likewise speaks of a heavenly sanctuary of which the earthly was a pattern (Heb. 8:5)
2. Where Is God? In his prayer at the temple dedication, Solomon spoke of the heaven as the place of God’s dwelling (1 Kings 8:30). Yet he admitted that even the heavens could not contain God. How much less the earthly temple that he had built (v. 27). So where is God? Up? Down? What does all that mean once we know that the earth is a sphere? Is heaven always up?
3. Saving the Good, Condemning the Evil. In some sense, Scripture depicts the heavenly sanctuary/temple as the central control room for God’s government. In the setting of that temple, Psalm 11:4-7 brings together the two opposing sides in the great struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan. The condemnation of the wicked is stated in no uncertain terms: “The wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion” (vs. 5). How does God – and his followers – mediate a message of grace to the “wicked” without taking the catastrophic results of sin lightly?
4. Sanctuary Imagery in the Book of Revelation. In the Gospels, especially in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus does not stress his visible authority. He mingles with the people and declares that the “son of man” did not come “to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). By contrast, everything in the book of Revelation focuses on divine authority. And the sanctuary/temple imagery contribute to that picture. Revelation 4 and 5 focus on the temple and the worship of God. In short, almost the whole book focuses more on worship than on service. Given that emphasis, it is striking that at the end of the book, the Revelator states that he does not see a temple in the New Jerusalem because “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). Does this final move away from “sanctuary” imagery help us see more clearly an egalitarian future for God and his people?
5. Imagining the Sanctuary in Heaven. One of the reasons why a discussion of the topic of the sanctuary in heaven can be so volatile is the great gulf separating those who think concretely and those who think more abstractly. The concrete imagery that is so important for some is virtually impossible for others to accept. And that gulf can develop in the most surprising ways. The author of this study guide (Alden Thompson), remembers how surprised he was to realize that the 10 commandments would make no sense in a perfect heavenly world. The reference to the “ark of the covenant” in the heavenly temple in Revelation 11:19, suggests the presence of the tables of stone in heaven. But one day a light flashed on in his head and he realized how strange the 10 commandments would seem to angelic beings who had never faced sin in a material world: Honor your father and mother, do not kill, do not steal; even the Sabbath would make no sense without the sunset to mark the beginning and end.
In Alden Thompson’s book, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Review and Herald, 1991), chapter 17, “Visions: Documentaries or Animations?” (pp. 196-204) addresses the question. An excerpt from that chapter follows here:
Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (RH, 1991)
“The Concrete and the Abstract”
Our dilemma when dealing with visions is that human beings vary greatly in their ability and inclination to shift between concrete and abstract thinking. From my own experience, I have discovered that conservative Christians tend to be more concrete in their way of thinking. That clearly describes the bulk of Adventists: miracles and heaven are real; Jesus was indeed God in the flesh; Resurrection and Second Advent are literal events.
By contrast, I have noticed that so-called liberal Christians tend to be more abstract in their thinking. They are less inclined to put full stock in literal miracles or heaven; a literal Incarnation, Resurrection and Second Advent are also often problematic.
Culture and environment are also at work here. I found a real difference, for example, among our German believers when it came to their way of thinking about heaven and the future life. I watched as otherwise very conservative German Adventists became very uncomfortable listening to Americans wax enthusiastic about birds, flowers, and well-decked tables in heaven. In America, no holds are barred when we talk about the physical pleasures of the future life: boating, sailing, flying, reveling in the tall grass – all that is fair game in an American Adventist heaven.
Understandably then, given the inclination of German students, when we came to the doctrine of the sanctuary, they were uncomfortable if I made the heavenly sanctuary too literal. I well remember my initial irritation and their uneasiness as we tried to come to a meeting of the minds in a seminar setting. I had given the class an article on the sanctuary by an American Adventist scholar. Early on in the article, he makes an appropriate disclaimer about our very limited knowledge of heavenly matters. But then, in good American style, he uses the symbols quite naturally and freely without constantly reminding us that they are just symbols.
That did not go down well with my German students. Almost after every sentence they needed reassurance that these were just symbols. I agreed with them in principle, of course, and we moved on. But the constant pushing in the direction of the abstract and away from the concrete was having its impact on me. And I didn't realize it until I was chattering away at home with my wife one day and made some casual remark about heavenly matters. She stopped me and questioned what I had just said. Suddenly I realized that for no other reason than the constant pressure of the environment, I was making concessions I probably didn’t need to make – indeed should not make.
Some months later, back in America, I took a survey of a standard Adventist audience and asked them how they viewed the Investigative Judgment. I asked: “On a scale of 1 (concrete) to 10 (abstract), how do you picture the events in their own mind?
I expected to find a much stronger response at the strictly concrete end of the spectrum. As a matter of fact, 46 percent of the crowd did mark 1: the events are concrete. But 54 percent marked something other than 1, though most were very close to 1, with a 2 or a 3. Still, a narrow majority of that crowd was willing to put at least some qualification on our ability to see things as they actually are.
Actually, none of us can get very far with our thought processes without using pictures, and rather concrete ones at that. What do love, or hate, or kindness, or anger mean unless we can put arms, legs and a face with them?
When it comes to the heavenly realm, I like to ask my students to describe for me God’s method of keeping records. It is great fun watching thoughtful faces break into amused smiles as the “truth” dawns and everyone comes to virtually the same conclusion: quill pens and scrolls – possibly books instead of scrolls, but the quill pens for sure.
Now, imagine an angel rushing into the heavenly archives with an urgent message: "Quick! We must do something to update our system. Down there on earth they are already using microfiche and computers.”
I can’t really imagine something like that happening. But then I can’t really imagine changing my mental picture from quill pen to computers either. Gabriel and Company with computers just doesn’t ring true. So I am prepared to see quill pens when I think of records in heaven – while telling myself that the reality is something quite different. What is that reality? I don’t know. But when God told us about books and records, that was language that human beings could understand. Whether quill pens, microfiche, computers – or the system really in use up there, the practical point of the vision is embarrassingly clear, isn’t it?
At this point, I am wondering if God ever gives a true documentary. More and more I am inclined to think that all his visions are animations, adaptations to limited human capabilities. He will do what he has to do to make us understand what is important. But I suspect we are in for some real surprises when we take our first tour of the heavenly realm.
For me, the concrete elements of my conservative Adventist heritage are very important. Everything I know in this life is linked with something tangible: my wife, my children, my colleagues, my church, my world. God created a material world and declared it good. It has been distorted by sin, to be sure, He has promised to make it new again. That promise is very precious to me. Why do you suppose “the blessed hope” has as such deep roots in our Adventist experience if it doesn’t point us to a real God who cares for real people and who will take us to a real place?
I tell my students that I want them to keep the pictures that make belief possible for them, concrete or abstract. As C. S. Lewis once said, he didn’t mind if someone thought God had a beard, for no one ever went to hell for believing that.
We can be anywhere along the concrete-abstract scale as long as we don’t try to impose our pictures on others. And I suppose that is where the “concrete” thinkers are most likely to err. Our images are so important to us that we may react more vigorously than we should if we think someone is trying to snatch them away from us. I well remember the warm note of appreciation on an evaluation form after teaching a class on the doctrine of the sanctuary. “Thank you, Dr. T., for letting me keep my pictures,” read the note, “I need them.”
We all need our pictures. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if we could be more gentle in dealing with one another’s pictures.
Finding the right picture was important for the Bible writers, too. In fact, precisely in the area of the sanctuary we find God inspiring his messengers to share pictures that the people could understand. Two biblical contexts can serve to illustrate.
In Exodus 25:9, God told Moses to make the sanctuary “according to all that I show you concerning the pattern.” Archaeologists have discovered that the pattern was similar in many respects to that of the Canaanite temples. Surprising? Yes – until we recognize that God wanted a house of worship to be recognized as a house of worship within that culture. The practices inside the Israelite temple differed dramatically from those of the Canaanites. But at least a church looked like a church!
In Hebrews 8:5 we read that the earthly sanctuary was to serve as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.” If Exodus spoke to a Canaanite setting, then Hebrews spoke to the Greco-Roman world. And in that world, Plato’s concept of the heavenly “ideals” was dominant: whatever object one finds on earth is naturally a reflection of the true idea of that object in heaven. Understandably, then, the author of Hebrews would talk about the copy and the shadow.
For us, that means we should be rather cautious about turning our pictures into absolutes. Adventists probably have more difficulty with the visions of Ellen White than we do with Scripture, at least that has been my experience. Generally, my classes have been more prepared to live with a diversity of understanding of the biblical visions that they are with reference to Ellen White’s. Yet the principle is the same.
I suspect some of the conservative force in Adventism stems from the fact that the sanctuary doctrine was instrumental in leading Adventists to accept the Sabbath. Ellen White’s vision of the ark in the heavenly sanctuary and the “halo of glory” around the fourth command (EW, p. 255) played a key role originally in Adventism and still does in many circles.
That picture was vivid enough in my own thinking to cause a real jolt when I suddenly realized (I don’t remember just when) that the ten commandments, especially the fourth, are meaningful only for this earth. Not only could the angels not worship on the same Sabbath, but they would not know what to do with commands 5 or 10 – or with any of the others in between.
As Ellen White observed later, Satan’s rebellion brought law to the minds of the angels “almost as an awakening to something unthought-of ” (MB, p. 109).
I finally concluded that the vision of the halo around the fourth command was a powerful picture that accomplished its purpose in establishing the fourth command. It is not, however, a documentary of the heavenly reality.
In that connection, I have found a couple of quotations from Ellen White to be useful. The net result of both is to caution us about moving too far towards either the concrete or the abstract extreme in our conceptions of things heavenly:
If we could choose, we might want to avoid both the 1 and the 10 on the scale of concrete-abstract. Unfortunately, that is precisely the kind of thing we are often unable to choose. It is born into us and cemented in place by our environment. But we can ask the Lord to help us learn to let others live with their pictures.
A final word from that survey I have been referring to, in fact, from a woman who did not like my question at all. She ended up marking a 5 on the scale – under protest and quoting C. S. Lewis: “Some things are so terribly real we can’t possibly imagine them.”
I’m inclined to think that both she and he just might be right.
6. Using Scripture Creatively. The official study guide includes the following quote to make the point that we cannot know very much at all about the things of heaven. It was from a sermon that Ellen White preached on December 1, 1888:
The SDABC enters this quote as a comment on 2 Cor. 4:17-18 where Paul concludes with the admonition to focus on the unseen since anything we see is temporary. Interestingly enough, however, in light of the modern emphasis on using contextually-faithful quotations, Ellen White quotes 1 Corinthians 2:9 out of context in a way that is often done with that passage. Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 2:10 to say that the things that eye has not seen or ear heard, God has revealed to us by the Spirit. But that verse is popularly used (as EGW does in the 1888 sermon) to make the point that we cannot imagine what is really there. But what she does falls in line with what the New Testament writers do again and again and with what virtually everyone does in everyday speech as we quote others. It’s worth noting that 1 Cor. 9 is quoting Isaiah 64:4, which has yet another contextual understanding. SDABC 6:327, commenting on the Isaiah passage, includes a remarkable survey of varied uses of that passage in the writings of EGW.
With reference to the heavenly sanctuary, we will want to affirm two points in tension: First, that we are not wholly ignorant of the heavenly realm; second, the reality is far beyond anything we can imagine. And we should be very gentle in dealing with one another when it comes to our use of Scripture. Even when we are quoting out of context (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:9), we are often expressing truths that are very clear elsewhere in Scripture. But as believers we are drawn to the words of Scripture and will use them, even if they are not reflecting the author’s original intention. And that’s perfectly alright.