The Reality of the Heavenly Sanctuary
In speaking of the heavenly sanctuary we need to avoid two pitfalls: (1) We must avoid putting the earthly sanctuary into heaven and see a tent or a temple of stone in heaven, and (2) we must avoid spiritualizing heavenly things to the point of meaninglessness, or equate the sanctuary with heaven. God reveals heavenly things through visions and dreams (Num. 12:6), which contain an abundance of imagery and symbols. A literal interpretation of these symbols would reduce these prophecies to absurdity.
Prophets describe in symbolic language what they have seen, without explaining that they are utilizing imagery. Ellen White, for example, describes Satan trying to carry on the work of God in the presence of God in heaven.1
Because she was criticized for this, she later wrote: “I will give another sentence from the same page: ‘I turned to look at the company who were still bowed before the throne.’ Now this praying company was in this mortal state, on the earth, yet represented to me as bowed before the throne. I never had the idea that these individuals were actually in the New Jerusalem. Neither did I ever think that any mortal could suppose that I believed that Satan was actually in the New Jerusalem. But did not John see the great red dragon in heaven? Certainly. ‘And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns.’ Revelation 12:3. What a monster to be in heaven! Here seems to be as good a chance for ridicule as in the interpretation which some have placed upon my statements.”2
In visions prophets frequently see representations of the actual but not the actual itself. Concerning the earthly sanctuary, the biblical record tells us that Moses was told four times to make the sanctuary according to the pattern that was shown to him on the mountain (Ex. 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8). What Moses saw was a tent with two apartments with all its furnishings, and this is what he built—the Old Testament sanctuary. But this does not mean that there is a tent in heaven.
The temple of Solomon was built according to the instructions David received from God. “David gave his son Solomon the plans for the vestibule, its houses, its treasuries, its upper chambers, its inner chambers, and the place of the mercy seat; and the plans for all that he had by the Spirit, of the courts of the house of the Lord, of all the chambers all around, of the treasuries of the house of God, and of the treasuries for the dedicated things; . . . ‘All this,’ said David, ‘the Lord made me understand in writing, by His hand upon me, all the works of these plans’” (1 Chron. 28:11, 12, 19).3
Does this mean that there is a temple of stone in heaven? I don’t believe so. There is a sanctuary in heaven, but it is made of heavenly material, not earthly stones. The heavenly sanctuary is much greater, grander, and more beautiful than any earthly tent or temple ever could be. What was shown to Moses and David were earthly models of the heavenly sanctuary—not miniature editions of the heavenly sanctuary but earthly representations that Moses and David could build at the time and place in which they lived.
God adapted what He showed them to the circumstances in which they lived. Therefore, there is not a tent or a temple of stone in heaven, but a heavenly sanctuary made of heavenly material and in heavenly dimensions.
Ellen G. White described the heavenly sanctuary in these words: “The abiding place of the King of kings, . . . that temple, filled with the glory of the eternal throne, where seraphim, its shining guardians, veil their faces in adoration, could find, in the most magnificent structure ever reared by human hands, but a faint reflection of its vastness and glory. Yet important truths concerning the heavenly sanctuary and the great work there carried forward for man’s redemption were taught by the earthly sanctuary and its services.”4
The earthly sanctuary was but a “faint reflection of its vastness and glory.” The heavenly throne room, the seat of God’s government in the universe, where millions of angels stand before God, could never be adequately represented by an earthly structure. Literal language is sometimes utterly inadequate to express the supernatural realities of heaven. Nevertheless, we must never spiritualize the heavenly sanctuary or equate it with heaven itself.
There are many texts in the Old and New Testament that indicate that heaven is not the sanctuary, but that there is a sanctuary in heaven:
“The Lord is in His holy temple, The Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Ps. 11:4).
“We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Heb. 8:1, 2).
The evidence of the Old and New Testament shows that the biblical authors firmly believed in the reality of the heavenly sanctuary. And nowhere do they equate heaven with the sanctuary. Particularly the Book of Revelation makes a clear distinction between heaven and the sanctuary in heaven. Revelation 5:11 provides a perspective as to its size: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands.” Ellen White aptly said, “That temple filled with the glory of the eternal throne, where seraphim, its shining guardians, veil their faces in adoration—no earthly structure could represent its vastness and its glory.”5
Does the heavenly sanctuary have two apartments as did the earthly? Marvin Moore, the editor of the magazine Signs of the Times, doesn’t think so: “Without the veil in the earthly sanctuary, there would have been only one apartment. Why the veil? Its purpose was to shield the priest from entering directly into God’s presence on a daily basis (see Lev. 16:3). But there is no need for Jesus, our High Priest, to be shielded from exposure to God’s presence, and, thus, there is no need of a veil . . . . The heavenly sanctuary Jesus entered following His ascension consists of one ‘room,’ not two.”6
Moore correctly says that the dividing curtain is not necessary in the heavenly temple. Christ has been in the presence of the Father since His ascension (Acts 7:55; Rom. 8:34). If there is a veil or curtain in the heavenly sanctuary, it is not to separate Jesus from the Father. Why then did Ellen White speak about two apartments in the heavenly sanctuary? Because in vision she was shown two apartments, just as Moses was shown a tent with two apartments and David a temple with two apartments.
The importance of the two apartments, however, was not just their geography, but also their symbolic function. The two apartments in the sanctuary represented two phases in Christ’s service. Ellen White explains: “As Christ's ministration was to consist of two great divisions, each occupying a period of time and having a distinctive place in the heavenly sanctuary, so the typical ministration consisted of two divisions, the daily and the yearly service, and to each a department of the tabernacle was devoted.”7
The New Testament church believed that after Jesus’ ascension, He ministered for His followers in the very presence of God in the heavenly sanctuary (Acts 7:55; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 9:24). In the epistle to the Hebrews, in particular, the writer is trying to turn the eyes of the Jewish Christians away from the ministry in the earthly sanctuary/temple to the heavenly sanctuary with a more perfect ministry by their own resurrected and ascended Lord and Savior. Gradually, however, the ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary became obscured. The eyes and attention of Christian believers were largely directed toward the confessional, the sacrifice of the mass, saints, and the Virgin Mary in place of the continuous or daily mediation of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. Christ’s continuous ministry in the heavenly sanctuary on behalf of humanity was diminished, lost sight of, and largely forgotten.
Even if we do not know exactly what the heavenly sanctuary looks like, we can nevertheless speak and proclaim what goes on there. We know that Jesus ministers in the heavenly sanctuary and that by faith we can come to the throne of God and receive mercy and forgiveness—and this is the important thing.
In our proclamation, therefore, let us focus on the ministry of Christ in two phases in the heavenly sanctuary, rather than lose sleep over its architecture or geography.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Early Writings, p. 55.
2. Ibid., pp. 92, 93.
3. All Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
4. The Great Controversy, p. 414.
5. Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 357.
6. Marvin Moore, The Case for the Investigative Judgment: Its Biblical Foundation (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2010), p. 277.
7. Patriarchs and Prophets, op. cit.