The Heavenly Sanctuary
The early Adventists believed the Sanctuary that would be cleansed at the end of the 2300 days was the Earth, which would be cleansed by fire when Jesus returned on October 22, 1844. When this did not happen, as they so earnestly believed, they sought to discover where they had gone wrong.
Hiram Edson and Owen R.L. Crossier subsequently concluded that the Sanctuary that was to be cleansed in 1844 was not the Earth but the Sanctuary in heaven above. This new understanding, which was advanced by James White in the Review and Herald, was fleshed out by 1857 and eventually adopted as one of the pillars of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The question we wish to address in this article is, What and where is the heavenly Sanctuary? The only book in the Bible that mentions the heavenly Sanctuary is the book of Hebrews, so we will need to look there for our answer.
The book of Hebrews was written mainly for Hellenistic Jews who had become Christians; hence its title. The author of Hebrews draws lessons from the cultus of these converts to Christianity, which explains the book’s many references to the Sanctuary, the sacrifices, and the work of the High Priest. To understand Hebrews, therefore, we need to understand the thought-world of First Century AD Judaism.
At the time this letter was written to the Hebrews, many people in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean believed—as Plato had taught—that the universe was divided into two separate levels, the imperfect physical world in which we live and the perfect spiritual world of heaven above. Our earthly world, according to Plato, was only a shadow of the eternal ideals in the heavenly world up in the sky. We find in Hebrews, for example, an ‘earthly Sanctuary’ (Heb. 9:1) that is ‘a copy and shadow of what is in heaven’ (Heb. 8:5). The fact that the earthly Sanctuary was copied from a heavenly pattern (Exod. 25:40) seems to give weight to the fact that there is a Sanctuary in heaven above.
IS HEBREWS TOTALLY PLATONIC?
While the author of Hebrews used Plato’s theoretical model of the universe, to explain to Christian converts from Hellenistic Judaism, that the services in the Jerusalem Sanctuary were just shadows of the ministry of Jesus, he wasn’t slavishly bound to Plato’s hypothesis, because some of the things he wrote about go completely against what Plato taught. Plato taught, for example, that heaven above was pure and perfect. If that is true, what explanation could be given for the fact that the heavenly Sanctuary, according to Hebrews 9:23, needed cleansing? If the heavenly Sanctuary needed cleansing, it can only be because it was defiled. But defilement in heaven is utterly contrary to Plato’s paradigm.
Also, according to Plato, the human body wasn’t the true reality, it was just an appearance of the true; for him the world of reality was the world of the immaterial human spirit. Such a view, however, cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the book of Hebrews, in which the resurrection of the physical body is one of the foundational teachings of the Church (6:1-2; see also 11:19 & 35).
Even more offensive to the Platonic viewpoint, is the teaching that believers, here in this world below, are encouraged to enter into the presence of a Holy God in the innermost part of the heavenly Sanctuary (Heb. 10:19-22). Defilement in heaven that needs to be cleansed; the resurrection of the physical body and the fact that people in their earthly bodies can now enter God’s presence in the Holy of holies, are concepts that were repugnant and totally unacceptable to any Platonist.
As there are things in the book of Hebrews that are clearly contrary to Plato’s paradigm, it would be wrong to automatically conclude the heavenly Sanctuary must be up in heaven above.
The Scriptures, for example, reveal that every detail of the earthly Sanctuary, including the altar of burnt offering, ‘pots, shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans’ etc. (Exod. 38:3), was copied from the pattern of the one in heaven (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). That, however, creates an immediate problem. If there is a literal Sanctuary in heaven above, why would it need an altar of burnt offerings and all the implements associated with it, such as meat forks and firepans? Is there really an altar of burnt offerings up in heaven? If there is, what is its purpose there? And what are the heavenly meat forks used for? Furthermore, if the omnipresent God cannot be confined in a finite temple—whether in heaven or on Earth (Acts 7:47-50)—what would be the purpose of a literal Most Holy Place in the heavenly Sanctuary?
TYPE AND ANTITYPE
Christians believe the sacrifices which were made on the altar in the courtyard of the earthly shadow-Sanctuary in Jerusalem, pointed to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. Jesus, the Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), who was sacrificed for the sins of the world (John 1:29; Rev. 13:8), was not slain on an altar in a temple up in heaven, he was crucified outside the walls of old Jerusalem (Heb. 13:12). If, then, the cross of Jesus is the true altar in the heavenly Sanctuary of the book of Hebrews, we are forced to the conclusion that the courtyard ministry of the heavenly Sanctuary took place, not in heaven above, but here on Earth.
This brings us to the crux of our argument: Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was made, not in a celestial realm called heaven, but in a spiritual realm called heaven. The shadow-Sanctuary that was first built by Moses, did not point to another literal Sanctuary, any more than the altar of burnt offerings pointed to another literal altar (Heb. 13:10), or the curtain of the Most Holy Place to another literal curtain (Heb 10:20). The whole of the shadow-Sanctuary and its services pointed to Jesus’ redemptive ministry in the spiritual realm of heaven. In other words, the physical building and its furniture of the old covenant, illustrated the spiritual realities of the new covenant.
HEAVEN IS ACCESSED BY DEATH
According to the Hebrew Platonists, only the holy and perfect spirit, divested of its imperfect body at death, could draw near to God. But according to the author of Hebrews, Christians are now, at this very moment, able to draw near to God in their flesh, because they ‘have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Heb. 10:10 emphasis supplied). ‘By one sacrifice (Jesus) has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Heb. 10:14 emphasis supplied).
Now here is the key: The author of Hebrews is telling us that the ideal, or heavenly world (which Plato said came after death), has already arrived in Jesus. The ideal world, according to the gospel, is not achieved by our death but by his. When Jesus died on the cross he made it possible for us to enter that ideal world immediately. In other words, heaven is not made accessible to us at the time of our death; it was made accessible at the time of Jesus’ death. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice we can step through the curtain of death into God’s presence right now (Heb 10:19-22). Yes, we enter heaven the very moment we accept Jesus’ death in the place of ours.
If all that sounds too over the top, consider the following passage, also from Hebrews:
‘You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the first born, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God’ (Heb. 12:22-23, emphases added).
The verse does not say, ‘You will come,’ but ‘You have come.’ It’s past tense. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we are already in heaven. The shadow-Sanctuary revealed that the only way to get into God’s presence was through the curtain of death, but when Jesus’ body was rent on the cross, that curtain was rent, opening the way for us to enter boldly into God’s presence (Heb. 10:19-22).
There can be no question that the book of Hebrews, like Plato, presents heaven as the ideal spiritual kingdom. It would be difficult to give Hebrews 12:22-23 any other interpretation. There is a massive difference, however, between Plato’s heaven and the heaven of the book of Hebrews. Plato’s heaven is a cosmic heaven up in the sky; the heaven of the book of Hebrews, is God’s spiritual kingdom that was established here on Earth by Jesus when he died and rose again.
Platonism is a dualism of two worlds, one the visible world and the other an invisible ‘spiritual’ world … The biblical dualism is utterly different from this Greek view. It is religious and ethical, not cosmological … Salvation is achieved not by a flight from the world but by God’s coming to man in his earthly, historical experience. Salvation never means flight from the world to God; it means, in effect, God’s descent from heaven to bring man in historical experience into fellowship with himself. Therefore the consummation of salvation is eschatological. It does not mean the gathering of the souls of the righteous in heaven, but the gathering of a redeemed people on a redeemed earth in perfected fellowship with God.1
The book of Hebrews goes even a step further than Plato: The death that gives us access to heaven has already been made, which means we can be united with God the very moment we appropriate that death for ourselves.
‘We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body …’ (Heb. 10:19-20).
No one can ever pass through the veil that separates this world from the next by Plato’s old way of the death of the body. Sin requires more than just the death of the body—it requires the total annihilation of the sinner (John 3:16; Rom. 6:23; 2 Thess. 1:8-9). The only way to pass throughthe curtain of death to God is to accept the reality that this curtain is the substitutionary death of Jesus (Heb. 10:19-20). Because he died in our place, we won’t have to die eternally. So heaven is still accessed by death—but it’s Jesus’ death, not ours. Furthermore, it is accessed now, not later. We ‘have come,’ not ‘will come,’ to heaven (Heb. 12:22-23).
THE CLEANSING OF THE HEAVENLY SANCTUARY
When the earthly Sanctuary was defiled by sin, it was cleansed by the blood of animal sacrifices. But the heavenly Sanctuary is cleansed or purified, not with the blood of goats and calves, but ‘with better sacrifices than these’ (Heb. 9:23)—the blood of Jesus. The question we shall attempt to answer next is: What exactly is this heavenly Sanctuary that is cleansed by the blood of Jesus?
Most knowledgeable Christians, if asked the question, ‘What, according to the Bible, is cleansed by the blood of Jesus?’ would invariably answer, ‘We are cleansed of our sin by the blood of Jesus.’ And if asked again, ‘Could you support your answer from the Bible?’ they would reply, ‘Yes, according to 1 John 1:7 (NASB), ’the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin.’ Some might even refer to the experience of the apostle Peter, who was shown in a vision, that unclean people are made clean when they accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour (Acts 10:15; 11:9). The answer therefore is, it is people who are cleansed by Jesus’ blood.
Why is it then, that if I were to re-phrase the question and ask instead, ‘Tell me, please, according to the book of Hebrews, what is cleansed by the blood of Jesus?’ Many would answer, ‘The heavenly things are cleansed by the blood of Jesus’ (Heb. 9:23). And if a second question was put, ‘What are these heavenly things?’ Most would admit that they do not know.2 Some would reply, ‘These heavenly things are the Sanctuary building and its contents up in heaven.’ If this last answer is true, one would wonder how this knowledge could benefit the disheartened Jewish converts, to whom the letter to the Hebrews was sent.
Is the book of Hebrews talking about something different from the rest of the New Testament, or is its message gospel truth? Hebrews 10:1 reminds us that ‘the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.’ What then is the ‘reality’ depicted by the cleansing of the Sanctuary? The ninth and tenth chapters of Hebrews contrast the shadow-cleansing that used to take place in the earthly Sanctuary, with the real cleansing that is now taking place in the heavenly Sanctuary, so a careful analysis of these two chapters should reveal the nature of the ‘reality’ to us. The following eight verses on cleansing are from these two chapters:
9:9 —Typical sacrifices
9:14 —The blood of Christ
9:23 —The typical sacrifices
9:23 —Better sacrifices
9:28 —Christ was sacrificed
10:11 —Typical sacrifices
10:14 —By one sacrifice
cannot cleanse the conscience
will cleanse our consciences
purified the copies of the true
cleansed the heavenly things
to take away the sins of many
can never take away sins
Jesus has made us perfect
to cleanse us from guilt.
THE CLEANSING AGENT: Column on the left reveals that the animal sacrifices (printed in italics), were shadows that pointed forward to Jesus’ sacrifice (printed in bold type).
THE THING CLEANSED: Column on the right reveals that the earthly Sanctuary (printed in italics) which was cleansed by animal sacrifices, was a shadow that pointed forward to God’s people (printed in bold type), whose guilty consciences have been cleansed by Jesus’ sacrificial death.
It is clear, therefore, that the book of Hebrews is one with the rest of the New Testament in regard to what is cleansed by Jesus’ blood. It explains to those Jews who had become Christians, that ‘the heavenly things’ are God’s people who have been cleansed by Jesus’ blood. They are called ‘heavenly’ because they belong to the kingdom of heaven.
THE ANTITYPICAL HEAVENLY SANCTUARY
What, according to the book of Hebrews, is the heavenly Sanctuary—the building made without hands—in which Christ ministers the benefits of his atonement?
‘Fix your thoughts on Jesus, the … High Priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the One who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house … Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast (Heb. 3:1-6 emphasis supplied).
It could hardly be clearer! The earthly Sanctuary, in which Moses ministered, pointed to the heavenly Sanctuary in which Jesus ministers. And the heavenly Sanctuary, in which Jesus, our High Priest, ministers, is the body of faithful believers here on Earth today. ‘The Sanctuary in which they worship God through Christ, is the fellowship of the new covenant; it consists in the communion of saints. The house of God, over which Christ, as his Son, is Lord, comprises his people …’3 The author of Hebrews says, ‘We are his house.’ And that not only makes a lot of sense, it is also consistent with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament (See 1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19-22; also Rev. 21:9-10 where the bride of Christ is the antitypical Holy of Holies where God dwells).
Jesus is not in a heavenly temple in another part of the universe, dressed up in a High Priest’s regalia, swinging an incense burner and tending lamps on a menorah. What spiritual benefit would he provide by such actions? Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is ministering his grace in a living temple here on Earth. And that temple is made up of all who accept him as their Lord and Saviour.4 ‘The redeemed community is the temple of God.’5
Because the blood of Jesus has cleansed this Sanctuary, God is now able to dwell in it through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22). F. F. Bruce concludes:
‘It has frequently been asked in what sense ‘the heavenly realities’ needed to be cleansed; but our author has provided the answer in the context. What needed to be cleansed was the defiled conscience of men and women; this is a cleansing which belongs to the spiritual sphere. The argument of v.23 might be paraphrased by saying, that while ritual purification is adequate for the material order—which is but an earthly copy of the spiritual order—a better kind of sacrifice is necessary to effect purification in the spiritual order.
If we envisage the heavenly dwelling-place of God in something like material terms (and, surrounded as we are by the material universe, it is difficult to avoid doing so), we shall find ourselves trying to explain the necessity for its cleansing, in ways which are far from our author’s intention. But we have already had reason to emphasise the people of God are the house of God; that his dwelling-place is in their midst. It is they who need inward cleansing, not only that their approach to God may be free from defilement, but that they may be a fit habitation for him. Just as the tabernacle in the wilderness, together with its furniture, had to be anointed and sanctified so that God might manifest his presence there among his people and they might serve him there, so the people of God themselves, need to be cleansed and hallowed, in order to become ‘a dwelling place of God in the Spirit’6 (Eph. 2:22).
THE NEW BIBLE DICTIONARY ARRIVES AT THE SAME CONCLUSION:
What is this temple? The writer supplies a clue when he says that the heavenly Sanctuary was cleansed (9:23), i.e. made fit for use (cf. Num. 7:1). The assembly of the first-born (Heb. 12:23), that is to say, the Church triumphant, is the heavenly temple.7
We can conclude, therefore, that the heavenly Sanctuary, in which God dwells, is not a place somewhere out in the celestial universe, but the body of believers here in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Christ’s ministry in this heavenly Sanctuary (Heb. 3:6), is a ministry to the redeemed, through his Spirit, who applies the benefits that Jesus won for us on Calvary. Just as the earthly Sanctuary had to be cleansed by the blood of animals to make it a fit habitation for God, so this heavenly Sanctuary had to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 9:13-14, 23), so the Father could come and dwell in the midst of his people. That cleansing was provided by Christ’s death on the cross in AD30 and becomes ours, the moment we appropriate it for ourselves. To claim, therefore, that the cleansing of God’s people began in 1844 is to make a claim that strikes directly at the heart of the gospel.
- George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968) p.14.
- William G. Johnsson confesses: ‘One searches in vain for any elaboration of 9:23 in the rest of Hebrews. It is a passing comment, pregnant with meaning, enigmatic and troubling to many commentators …’ (The Abundant Life Bible Amplifier: Hebrews (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1994), p.183.
- F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) p.34.
- ‘The Jewish tabernacle was a type of the Christian church … the Church on Earth, composed of those who are faithful and loyal to God, is the ‘true tabernacle,’ whereof the Redeemer is the minister.’ (E. G. White, Signs of the Times, Feb 14, 1900, Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre, Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia).
- The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. ‘Temple’ by W. von Meding.
- F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) pp.228-229.
- The New Bible Dictionary 2nd ed. (Tyndale House), s.v. ‘Temple,’ by R. J. McKelvey.