The Heavenly Sanctuary in the Book of Revelation

The Heavenly Sanctuary In the Book of Revelation

Literary study of this apocalyptic book must not overlook its theological significance.

Ikechukwu Michael Oluikpe

The Book of Revelation is a literary and theological masterpiece. This is evident in the mosaic of motifs intricately intertwined into its literary structure. One very good example of this is the Old Testament sanctuary motif. Just like some other major themes in the Book of Revelation1 that can be traced throughout its literary structure, the sanctuary theme is no exception.

Since Revelation is an apocalyptic book, it is not surprising that it is rich in Old Testament imagery, including that of the sanctuary sacrificial system. It is interesting to note that words, practices, features, and feasts that are associated with the Old Testament sanctuary can be found in the structure and content of the Book of Revelation. The Apocalypse is interspersed with words that are synonyms for the Old Testament sanctuary system. The words tabernacle or sanctuary are mentioned three times. Temple appears 16 times in its varied forms. In addition, different features of the Old Testament sanctuary appear in the structure of the Apocalypse as one progresses through the book. This is most notable in each introduction to John’s apocalyptic visions.

Revelation 1, an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3, reveals Jesus dressed and functioning as High Priest for His people (vss. 13-20). He is standing and walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks in the Holy Place of the sanctuary.

In Revelation 4 and 5, which introduce the seven seals found in chapters 6 and 7, a door is opened in heaven. The seven lamps burning before the throne appear again (4:5) and the Lamb, the central animal for sanctuary sacrifice, is present (5:5, 6). There are golden bowls full of incense. In addition, the altar of burnt offering is mentioned in Revelation 6 under the fifth seal.

Revelation 8, which is an introduction to the seven trumpets of chapters 9–11, reveals more features of the sanctuary: the golden censers and golden altar of incense (vss. 3-5; 9:13). In Revelation 11:19, just before the central section of the book (Revelation 12–14), the ark of the covenant, which is usually in the Most Holy Place (also called the Holy of Holies) is revealed—the location of the Decalogue (Ex. 25:16, 21).

Revelation 15, an introduction to the seven last plagues and God’s final judgments (Revelation 16–20), reveals the cessation of intercession in the Most Holy Place, since the smoke and glory of God fills the place. It is also important to note the role of angels whose movements, to and from heaven, are closely associated with sanctuary imagery (8:3-5).

The final sections of the Apocalypse (Revelation 21 and 22) describe the end of the Great Controversy and the absence of a sanctuary because God’s dwelling is with humankind (21:3), and God and the Lamb are the temple (vs. 22).

It is evident from the Old Testament sanctuary imagery in the Book of Revelation that this motif is essential for a deeper appreciation and understanding of the structure and content of the book. Behind these key literary features lie significant theological pillars of truth that are fundamental for Christian faith. Hence, the study of Revelation and the Bible must go beyond the literary to establish sound theology.


A Real Heavenly High Priest

The Book of Revelation confirms the reality of a heavenly sanctuary and a real heavenly high priestly ministry. The book begins with the revelation of the resurrected and glorified Jesus dressed as a High Priest (Rev. 1:13). This revelation comes about six decades after the events of the Book of Acts, which confirms and celebrates not only Christ’s resurrection but also His ascension to the right hand of God. This also confirms Paul’s celebration of Christ’s High Priestly ministry in the Book of Hebrews. He stresses that we have a great High Priest, who ministers in the heavenly sanctuary and stands for us in the presence of God (Heb. 8:1-3).

While affirming the reality of Christ’s heavenly High Priesthood, Paul also affirms the reality of the heavenly sanctuary. He does this by referring to it as “The true place of worship that was built by the Lord and not by human hands” (Heb. 8:2, NLT), as the original from which the earthly sanctuary was built. Moses’ account confirms this as well (Ex. 25:8, 9, 40; 26:30; 27:8). Thus, John’s testimony in Revelation confirms the accounts of Moses and Paul, which all testify to a real heavenly sanctuary.

The Apocalypse also testifies to the reality and centrality of Jesus to God’s plan of salvation. He is the High Priest who was dead and rose again, lives and cares for His churches and dwells among them (Rev. 1:13-20). Among other names, He is the Lamb, which is His most common name in the Apocalypse. He is the Lamb who was slain and who has redeemed human beings by His blood (5:1-13). His righteousness rises as incense with the prayers of the saints (8:4) and makes our petitions worthy of acceptance before God the Father. Indeed, Revelation testifies of a real Savior and High Priest in a real heavenly sanctuary, who ever lives to make intercession, forever ministering for the saints.


Heaven’s Control Room

The Book of Revelation confirms that the heavenly sanctuary is God’s throne room, from where He reigns. It is the control room of heaven—the control center of the universe. After Jesus’ final promise to the saints in Revelation 3:21, Revelation 4 speaks of a door “opened in heaven” (vs. 1, KJV), which begins the revelation of God’s throne room.

The description in the Apocalypse of God’s throne room in Revelation 4 shares similarities with the accounts of Isaiah (6:1-3) and Ezekiel (1:1-28; 10:1-22). It is also important to point out that the Bible presents a close connection between God’s temple and His throne.2 Mention of both the temple and the throne together in Revelation 16:17 seems to confirm the fact that they are both the same.

The word throne occurs 44 times in the Book of Revelation out of the 54 times the word appears in the whole New Testament. Its frequent recurrence is mostly associated with God’s sovereignty and control in the Apocalypse, which is another key theme in this apocalyptic book.

Another significant and outstanding feature of the Book of Revelation is its scenes of worship around the throne. The beings in each worship scene praise and worship God around the throne for what He has done on earth. They worship Him as Creator, as Redeemer and as Judge.3 Since the throne is in the heavenly sanctuary, the worship scenes illustrate God’s sovereignty. They demonstrate that “what happens on earth impacts heaven and what happens in heaven impacts earth."4 The Book of Revelation, through its affirmation of the heavenly sanctuary, testifies that God is aware and is in control of everything that happens on earth, especially as it relates to His saints.

The Lamb’s redemption of humankind by His blood is one of the great themes of worship around the throne in the Apocalypse. The Lamb, Jesus Christ, is described as “in the midst” (Rev. 5:6, KJV) or “at the center of” (7:17, NIV) the throne of God. These scenes stress the exaltation of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, to the throne of God after His resurrection and ascension. He is presented in the Book of Revelation, not just as One who stands in the presence of God—at the “right hand” of the throne of God as High Priest, which is the testimony of the books of Acts and Hebrews, among other New Testament writings. Jesus the Lamb is also worshipped as One who is God, as Redeemer and King, as One who sits on the throne in heaven. The heavenly sanctuary motif in the Apocalypse also celebrates the unique Person and role of Jesus Christ in salvation history—One who overcame sin on earth as human and sits on the throne with God the Father as God (3:21). This revelation of Jesus Christ speaks comfort, encouragement, and hope to the saints. The One who is their Redeemer and High Priest is the same One who sits as God and Judge “on the throne” in the control room of the universe: the heavenly sanctuary.

The Book of Revelation also presents the heavenly sanctuary as the source and center of divine judgment. The heavenly angels are described as involved in activity within the sanctuary in heaven that result in divine judgments that fall on the earth. As earlier mentioned, the work of God in the heavenly sanctuary affects the earth. The question follows, Why is God sending judgments to the earth? A careful reading of the Apocalypse reveals that it addresses the persecution of God’s people by cruel world powers. The cry of God’s persecuted saints in the Apocalypse can be summarized in Revelation 6: “‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (vs. 10, NKJV). These judgments are God’s divine response to the persecution of His saints. The Lamb, who sits on the throne, is also described as One who will be involved in the execution of divine wrath. Hence the sanctuary theme in Revelation captures and stresses the essence of divine judgment: the vindication and deliverance of the saints and the defeat and destruction of the enemies of God. Indeed, “what is done in the temple in heaven is done for the benefit of God’s people on earth."5 This motif points out the good news that God is in control of earth’s affairs and that He will not allow evil to continue to prevail. The theme of the heavenly sanctuary in Revelation unequivocally declares Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 32:35 in Romans 12:19: “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (NKJV).


Complete At-one-ment

In the final chapters of the Apocalypse (Revelation 21 and 22), the features and characteristics of the Old Testament sanctuary are no longer present. This is because God “tabernacles” with His people (21:3). There is no temple because God Himself is their temple (vs. 22).

This points back to the whole essence of the earthly Old Testament sanctuary/temple. In the beginning in Eden, God was present, walking with humankind (Gen. 3:8). Sin, however, caused humanity’s first parents to be driven out of God’s presence. In the time of Moses and early Israel, the purpose of the sanctuary is stated: “‘Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them’” (25:8, NKJV). The continuation of the sanctuary services through time stressed the need for atonement between God and humankind. The essence of the atonement is captured in the covenant formula: “‘I will . . . be your God, and you shall be My people’” (Lev. 26:12, NKJV), which occurs several times in the Bible as God’s desire.

The sanctuary motif in the Apocalypse closes by pointing out that God’s desire for the sanctuary is ultimately fulfilled. There will be no need for the earthly physical building designated as a sanctuary. All that the earthly sanctuary symbolized has come to complete fulfillment: God and humankind are “at-one” and dwell together for all eternity.

An overview of the sanctuary motif in the Book of Revelation reveals a very interesting and significant movement across the book that parallels the antitype of the Old Testament feasts of the earthly sanctuary. It portrays the following:

● Christ as heavenly High Priest standing among His people (Revelation 1), which stresses His death and resurrection and fulfills Christ’s role in the antitypical Passover;

● Christ as the Lamb on the throne (Revelation 4 and 5), which stresses His ascension and exaltation in heaven and points to Christ’s role in the antitypical Pentecost;

● Christ as heavenly mediator for His saints in the midst of trumpet-judgments (Revelation 8–10), which corresponds to the antitypical Feast of Trumpets;

● Christ in the Most Holy Place phase of judgment where the Ark of the Covenant is (Revelation 11:19; 14:7), which fulfills the beginning of the antitypical Day of Atonement;

● Christ’s completion of His high priestly ministry in heaven, which results in the cessation of intercession in the heavenly sanctuary (Rev. 15:8)—the completion of the antitypical Day of Atonement, resulting in the beginning of the final judgments on the earth (Revelation 16) and the close of human probation;

● Christ as the Divine Warrior and Bridegroom (Revelation 19), stepping out to the heavenly sanctuary to fight personally for and redeem/deliver His bride (the saints/the church), also part of the completion of the Antitypical Day of Atonement; and

● Christ as the Lamb, the temple of God dwelling with His people, fulfilling the antitypical Feast of Tabernacles. This movement through the sanctuary motif, from the beginning of the Book of Revelation to the end, shows God’s desire always to dwell with His people and the ultimate fulfillment of that desire.6

The sanctuary motif is a key theological theme that runs through the Apocalypse. Words, features, and imagery of the sanctuary can be found intricately interwoven in the literary structure of the Book of Revelation. However, beyond the literary is the theology. This motif in this book points to the reality of a heavenly sanctuary and a heavenly High Priest, to God’s sovereignty and power to judge, and to the ultimate completion of at-one-ment between God and humankind.


Ikechukwu Michael Oluikpe is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament studying at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.



1. E.g., the sovereignty of God, justice, salvation, Christology, ecclesiology, revelation, prophecy, and personal decision for judgment.


2. Jan Paulsen, “Sanctuary and Judgment,” Symposium on Revelation, Frank Holbrook, ed. (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), Book 2, pp. 277, 278, n. 6.


3. Rosalie H. Zinke, “Holy, Holy, Holy . . .” in “Worship in the Book of Revelation,” Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, “Worship” (Third quarter 2011: September 19), p. 154.


4. Ibid.


5. Kenneth Strand, “‘Victorious-Introduction’ Scenes,” in Symposium on Revelation, op cit., Book 1, p. 71.


6. Odek Rabach, “Sanctuary in Revelation: Context and Significance,” p. 10. Paper presented at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (Silang, Cavite, Philippines) Seminary Theological Forum, “Perspectives on the Heavenly Sanctuary” in October 2010.