Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Heavenly Sanctuary
by Rev. Sherman Isbell
Worship in the Scriptures presupposes a priest mediating between sinners and a righteous God. In the Old Testament, tabernacle worship revolved around the Levitical priesthood. Clearly the entire fabric of the temple service would be left suspended if the officiating priests were removed. Now Christ is revealed as the priest through whom our worship is mediated (Hebrews 2:17, 7:25, 10:19-22, Ephesians 2:13, 17-18, I Timothy 2:5-6, I John 2:1-2). The church could never come before God in worship except by virtue of Christ having died, and now ever living to make intercession for us. Without the merits of his sacrifice, and without this continuing advocacy on our behalf, what standing could we have before God, and what acceptance could there be for the church's prayers? It is to be feared that when the church assembles for worship we are not always as conscious as we ought to be of Christ's key position in the acceptance of what we offer to God.
The service of the Levitical priests was played out in an earthly sanctuary, which was modeled upon realities in heaven. While the Mosaic tabernacle, a copy of heavenly things, was still standing, the way for sinners into the true tabernacle in heaven was not yet made manifest. But Christ ministers not in a shadow temple, simulating an approach into God's presence. "Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us" (Hebrews 9:24, cf. 8:1-2, 9:8-12, 10:11-13, 1:3- 4, 4:14, 6:19-20, 7:26). In the Epistle to the Hebrews we learn that this has the most far-reaching significance for the prayers and worship of the New Testament church.
Whenever the church assembles, wherever believing hearts are lifted to God in prayer, we ourselves enter with boldness into the holiest in the heavenly sanctuary, through that blood of Jesus which has consecrated for us a new and living way of access to God (Hebrews 10:19-22, 12:18-24, 4:14-16, 6:19-20, 7:17-19, 25, Ephesians 3:11-12). Jesus is the forerunner who has entered for us the presence within the veil, and behind him we follow, with liberty of access to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. In prayer we place our confidence in our great high priest who has passed through the heavens - the mediator through whom alone we may draw near to God, and with such prayer all the ordinances of worship are to be administered. Thus the cross of Christ and his present advocacy in heaven ought surely to be in the mind of every worshipper as we come to God in prayer. How can the church worship God acceptably without the people's hearts being directed in faith to its priest ministering in the heavenly sanctuary? When the priest Zacharias went into the temple, the people prayed outside, awaiting his return (Luke 1:8-10). Their prayers centered upon the priestly service he was performing. Can anything less be true of New Testament Christians with respect to the focal point which Christ's priestly activity should have for their worship?
From the days when David took the tabernacle up to Jerusalem, that city was the seat of divine worship. When the people prayed toward Jerusalem, spreading out their hands toward the city and the temple, it was in expectation that their prayers would come before God, for there in Jerusalem the appointed sacrifices were offered and God met with his people over the mercy seat. Even when the temple and the sacrifices had been cut off during the exile in Babylon, prayer was still directed toward Jerusalem, and answers came at the time of the evening offering (I Kings 8:29- 30, 37-38, 44-49, Daniel 6:10, 9:21, Ezra 9:5).
There is a New Testament equivalence to this, for now the seat of worship is the true sanctuary in heaven, where Christ our priest is active. We are not come to the fearful intimidation of Mount Sinai, but to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the angels worship, where the church is registered in heaven, to God the Judge, the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to his blood of sprinkling. Christ's entrance into the most holy place, and our entrance there by the blood of Jesus, means that nothing less than the throne room of God in heaven is the seat of New Testament worship (Hebrews 12:18-24, Revelation 4:1-5:14, 7:9-17, 15:2-8). Christ appears in heaven garbed as a priest, and there the angels bring the golden censors which are the prayers of the saints (Revelation 1:13, 5:8, 8:3-5). New Testament worship is always directed to the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not of this creation, where Jesus Christ is our advocate with the Father (I John 1:9-2:2). Believers draw near with their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and therefore with freedom of access and full assurance of faith. This contrasts with coming to the Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, and which corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, whose repeated sacrifices are a reminder of sins every year. "But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Galatians 4:22-26, cf. Hebrews 10:1-3, 22). This Jerusalem above is the nub of the New Testament church's worship. Congregations everywhere in the world enter the holiest by the blood of Jesus. Our prayers are directed to heaven not only because it is God's dwelling place, but because our priest and tabernacle are situated there.
This Jerusalem above is the place where the Lamb of God is opening the scroll and loosing its seals, bringing about the realization in time of God's redemptive design for the church. The Lamb has been slain and has prevailed, and is worthy to bring redemption to its fullest application. Such is the glory of the risen Christ that John falls at his feet as dead. We ourselves bow in wonder and join in worship as we read in Revelation of the throne room in heaven, where the Lion of the tribe of Judah is in the midst of the throne and triumphant, the angels singing his praises: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!" (Revelation 4:1-5:14, 1:10-20). Surely our priest and savior is surrounded here with undimmed glory.
The service of the Levitical priests in the earthly tabernacle was encompassed with a wealth of symbolic representation. Such symbols were types of the more excellent glory of a future priest. There was a splendor expressed in outward pomp and aesthetic display which the Lord mandated as the setting for the activity of the Levitical priesthood. Such were their ephod, the breastplate embedded with precious stones, and the turban (Exodus 28), the ark of the testimony and other tabernacle furniture overlaid with pure gold--the ark being topped by the two cherubim of gold at either end of the mercy seat (Exodus 25), the uniquely composed incense and holy anointing oil made of sweet spices (Exodus 30), the paneling with Lebanon cedar and the lavish employment of gold in Solomon's temple, the architectural cube for the temple's inner sanctuary, and the temple's wood reliefs of cherubim, palm trees and open flowers (I Kings 6). There was also the blast of the trumpets by the priests, and the instrumental and vocal choirs of assisting Levites, who made music during the offering of sacrifices and when the ark was being taken up into Jerusalem (Numbers 10:10, I Chronicles 15:16-26, II Chronicles 29:25-30). Truly there was a glory and a beauty in Old Testament worship, a beauty attached to the seat of worship where the Levitical priests ministered (Exodus 28: 2 and 40).
There is a corresponding glory which attaches to the seat of New Testament worship. What can excel the glory of the exalted Christ entering heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us, continuing forever with an unchangeable priesthood? As with the Old Testament, the glory of New Testament worship is the glory of its priest. But while the glory of the Levitical priests is a symbolism in outward pomp and aesthetic display, the glory of Christ's priesthood is its efficacy to purge the conscience of sin and to constitute the ungodly righteous. The Old Testament symbols were unable to put away sin, and their very repetition was a reminder of sins unremoved. The Levitical priesthood had inadequacy written all over it (Hebrews 7:11, 18-19, 23-24,26-28,9:6-10, 23-26, 10:1-4,11). How superior is the glory of the priest who finished the work the Father had given him to do, who consequently has been given authority to give eternal life to many, and who could look to the Father to glorify him with the glory he had with the Father before the world was (John 17:1-5, cf. Ephesians 1:19-23, Philippians 2:9-11, Acts 2:33-36, 5:31)! The glory of this priest is the worthiness of the Lamb, who has prevailed to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And the glory which he lends to worship in the New Testament church is the freedom of access consecrated for us by our priest's efficacious sacrifice.
When the Levitical priesthood was superseded by the coming of Christ, there was also a termination of the gifts, sacrifices and temple ordinances of which the old priesthood was the focus (Hebrews 7:11-12,15-19, 8:13-9:10, Galatians 3:15-4:11, Ephesians 2:11-18). Not everything in the Old Testament forms of worship is still appointed for use in the church today; much was imposed until the time of reformation, when an effectual sacrifice would displace the old forms. The old order passed away with the accomplishment of Christ's mediatory work. What is it of the temple worship which is gone forever? Substantial elements like prayer are continued in the New Testament scriptures. But what of the permanence of a temple structure, the priestly garments, the animal sacrifices, the lavish overlay of gold, and the instrumental and vocal choirs? None of these is continued in the New Testament record of the church. Are these to be considered substantial elements of worship, or are they circumstantial elements instituted indeed by divine authority for use in the temple, but the symbolic trappings of the Levitical priesthood's glory?
The temple, with its altar, sacrifice, priest and many fixtures, was a shadow of the good things to come, but Jesus Christ is the substance. He himself is the fulfillment of all that they typologically depicted (John 2:18-22, Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 8:4-5, 10:l). The strength of Christ's offering was to dissolve the Mosaic institutions, and to introduce new ordinances of worship for the church. The old forms pictorially represented the glory and efficacy of the new covenant priest. Now we have in heaven the reality of Christ's glorious entrance into the throne room, rather than a shadow portrayal of it on earth. Though the picture show is abolished, and the glory of our worship is not visible to the eye, the power of the Spirit conforming us to the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:7-18), and the freedom of access to the presence within the veil, surpasses anything known in the Old Testament forms of worship. The passing away of an aesthetic representation of Christ's glory, in favor of the reality of his undimmed glory in the heavenly sanctuary, leaves a marked simplicity in the worship forms of the New Testament church. But this is not a lesser glory, unless glory is measured by outward pomp rather than by redemptive blessings.
There is a distinction between Old Testament and New Testament worship in the manner of our access to God. Old Testament believers dealt with altars, tabernacles, veils and animal sacrifices, shadowy representations of approach into God's presence, rather than relating immediately to the true tabernacle in heaven. There is a directness of approach in New Testament worship, because we deal not in the menace of shadows, but come boldly to God's own throne of grace, the way into the most holy place now being manifest. The old covenant's copies of heavenly things were unable to cleanse the conscience and remove the fear of death, and association with these shadows left men with a spirit of bondage and a sense of condemnation (Hebrews 2:14-15, 9:9, 13-14, 10:1-3, 20-22, 12:18-21, Galatians 4:3-11). The New Testament regards these shadows as a restraint in a bold approach to God. Christ by his death has purchased for us a directness of access, and a freedom from the typological pomp and ceremony of the Levitical priesthood. Do we cherish this liberty from the Mosaic institutions? Christ shed his blood to acquire it for us.
The beauty of New Testament worship is not produced by aesthetic display. When a congregation tries to worship God by making a creative artistic program for its services, it is not only offering to God something he has not commanded and never sought, it is also failing to appreciate the nature of our access into God's very presence in heaven which was won for us by the blood of Christ. The glory of our worship is the glory which surrounds our priest in heaven. Does that suffice us? The pomp of heaven is not to be independently recreated in a shadow on earth, for the shadows and copies (even those once authorized by God) have been abolished by the death of Christ, and now we go by faith into the true tabernacle, which is immeasurably superior. We participate not in symbols but in the realities in heaven when we worship. The simplicity of New Testament forms of worship - the absence of outward pomp and aesthetic exhibition - speaks volumes. It tells of the complete reality of our entrance into the holiest of all in heaven. We are no longer playing with models, but have come to the new Jerusalem itself. New Testament worship is not an imaginative aesthetic production offered to God.
The Old Testament temple worship was a pictorial spectacle of the prefigured entrance of Christ into the true sanctuary. When what was foreshadowed has arrived, it is inconsistent to perpetuate the depiction of its awaited debut. Are we being unduly fascinated with sensory displays like those of the temple? A bride does not continue to hold wedding rehearsals after the marriage has taken place. Now she has something better to enjoy, namely the actuality of the marriage relationship. Or, as the Basel reformer Johannes Oecolampadius put it, the Old Testament ceremonies were like the lighting of candles, which in the hours before dawn serve their own purpose. But after the sun has risen in the morning and ascended to the height of its noonday position, it is a strange lack of appreciation for the sunshine when we continue to burn candles. Appreciation for the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice should show itself by not seeking to return to a shadow notion of glory in worship.
In Acts and in the Epistle to the Hebrews we see indications that the Jews clung to the temple service in Jerusalem because they did not recognize the superior glory of Christ as the New Testament mediator (Acts 6:13-14, 21:27-28). Worshipers before the coming of Christ were meant to inquire into the meaning of the temple typology as it pointed forward to him, but now believers look to Christ fully revealed as the savior who has been exalted and has entered heaven itself (Cf. I Peter 1:10-12, Luke 24:26-27, 44-45). Do we pray with our faces to Jerusalem, hankering after the outward pomp of the temple ordinances? Or are we absorbed with the glory of our Redeemer's intercessory ministry in the heavenly throne room? Do we pray toward heaven where Christ mediates so competently for us, and where we enter by believing prayer into the holiest of all? Do the worship services in our churches bespeak the efficacy of Christ's priestly ministry in heaven, and the immediacy of our approach to God?
The Rev. Sherman Isbell is a pastor in the Presbyterian Reformed Church and presently serves a congregation in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. area.