Sometimes we get confused about the sanctuary as described in Scripture. Is the earthly sanctuary of Old Testament times an exact replica of the heavenly sanctuary? If so, why? Do God and the angels need a visual representation of God’s holiness when they have the very presence of God Himself with them?
Certainly the items and the ritual of sacrifices in the temple courtyard do not exist in the heavenly sanctuary. The ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s death, has already happened, as prophesied. All creation knows about that event. Can you imagine God slaying a heavenly animal and shedding its blood to represent the crucifixion of Christ? I certainly can’t.
I like the explanation I first heard when I was teaching at a school in Africa as an American missionary. A charismatic Catholic priest lived not far from the school, and one of the theology teachers at our ministerial seminar, who happened to be from Australia, became a friend of this priest and began meeting with him every week, explaining the sanctuary to him. I came along to listen.
The Old Testament sanctuary, the Australian minister explained, was a sandbox in the desert, a vivid display and acting out of the components of the plan of salvation. Every detail of the sanctuary and the sanctuary service was an illustration of an aspect of Jesus’ ministry to us as His people and His dealings with sin.
Many people, he continued, assume that the heavenly sanctuary is a copy of the earthly sanctuary, but the opposite is true. And by “copy” we are not referring to the same object or action, but a feeble though inspiring version of it. In heaven there are no copies, only the original.
I’ve thought a lot about that during the past thirty years. God didn’t “need” a sanctuary so He could sleep with His children. God didn’t get “tired” after working all day with people and “needed” a place to go to be by Himself. He ordered the temple built, the one the priests carried on their shoulders through the desert as well as Solomon’s glorious tabernacle, for the benefit of His people. He knew the weakness of this tempted and distraught family of His, and He took every possible step to assure them that no matter what, He was with them. That’s the way God is.
The sanctuary points to the sacrifice of Jesus and the obliteration of sin at the end of time. What a glorious picture that is. Today we serve the same God who took great pains to help the Israelites understand His love for them and His willingness to forgive them. We have all sixty-six books of Scripture to study what God has revealed about His will for us. That is far more than was revealed through the sanctuary service, but we need more because we are near the end of time as we know it.
I think it’s good to review the story of the wilderness sanctuary from time to time and recall the specific ways that God reaches out to heal us from sin. But today we have another task: to proclaim the soon coming of the Lord Jesus to take over the reign of His kingdom. We do that by absorbing His will for us by spending time in prayer and study. We do that by “living for Jesus in all that we do,” by overcoming sin by the grace of God, by showing others what God’s love can do for us.