Back to top

The Reformation Herald Online Edition

Christ in His Sanctuary

A Sacred Monument or Just a Tourist Attraction?
Tobias Stockler
A Sacred Monument or Just a Tourist Attraction?

There it stood in all of its glory. With marble walls, giant columns with ornamental ivy, and golden ornaments, it was one of the most beautiful architectural accomplishments of humanity. It was the landmark of ancient Israel. Hard to miss on the sacred hill, no one thought of traveling to ancient Jerusalem without having a look. And thousands of people traveled to Jerusalem whether they wanted to or not, for it was on the land route between most of the important nations of ancient history. This made it one of the most common sightseeing locations of its day. No matter what pagan god the travelers worshipped or whether they had no god at all, questions filled their mind and curiosity was aroused by looking at the Jewish Temple on the hill.

As it stood in all of its beauty, the Temple was a constant reminder for centuries of the Messiah. But Jesus never used its services or entered into its holiest rooms. During His earthly ministry, He taught in its courtyard to the multitude. Yet the Temple building itself, the building of the Messiah, was hallowed by the presence of Jesus in human form. See Prophets and Kings, p. 597.

The first room Jesus never stepped into had constant light from the famous golden candelabra, held a table filled with bread that was always available, and smelled pleasant from the incense on the altar. This simple room with its few furnishings had very different memories for three groups of people. The tourists saw one holy place, the child of God another one, and the clergy who worked in it saw yet another one.

For the travelers through Israel, religion was a way of bribing gods that didn’t listen very carefully into being kind to yourself or your loved ones. Expensive contributions and obedience to complex demands from powerful clergymen would supposedly motivate gods that only the priests knew to bring a more favorable economy, good crops, or health. You gave the bribe and hoped that the god in control got the point. Thinking people tended to see it as fraud and were generally not very religious. The poor couldn’t afford to bribe the gods, so they tended to feel very helpless and to be very frustrated. Realistically, the rich who did not think deeply could bribe the priests but not the elements. You could donate money to get the priests to sell their influence to you. But the sun and rain could never be bribed. So these religions had a hit-and-miss success rate that were part of their problem.

To these thousands of tourists over the years, the Temple was a pretty building. They talked about the architectural design and the cost of the building materials. The sanctuary had no spiritual value for them, no meaning for their everyday life. They lost out on its lessons because they were too busy or careless to learn. But to the few travelers and Jews who prayerfully thought about the Temple, its meaning became plain.

If we join Peter or Mary as they travel to the Temple, we get a glimpse of it from their experience. Many different reasons would lead them to travel to the sacred hill. The Temple had services for celebration and gratitude, for unity and peacemaking, and for reconciliation. It was the center of Jewish social life, the reminder of their dependence on God, and the pulse of the nation’s spirituality. Much of their pride and reflection were focused on the courtyard or on the mysterious holiest room. Two moments in their day-to-day life brought them into contact with the holy room.

Forgiveness and the holy place

The God of Israel has always had a completely different character from that of the pagan gods. He makes provision for the poor. He provides a religion that satisfies the thoughtful and intelligent. He is powerful. He does control sun and rain. He does control life and destiny. But He refuses to ever be bribed. No matter how many times you come to the temple, how many offerings you bring, or how “good” you behave, He is not impressed. He already freely gives the sun and the rain to the good and to the unjust. He does not hold back blessings because of who we are. But there is one blessing He refuses to give out freely:

He does not give Himself, His friendship, His intimate joy, peace, and contentment. These are reserved for anyone who recognizes that he or she is a sinner who has hurt a loving God.

The Temple was not built as a memorial to manipulation and control, power and intrigue. That was what the pagan temples stood for. God instituted His building as the doorstep on which He was waiting for every prodigal son and daughter born into this world to find our way home. It was the constant reminder of His willingness to forgive every one of us, and be reconciled with His enemies. It was the monument to His compassion for all of us who have hurt ourselves or others. It was a reminder that every act of evil and injury in this world is also an act of ingratitude and hostility toward God Himself. A sin against any human being is simultaneously a sin against God. We may apologize to each other. We may forgive each other. But reconciliation is not complete until we are reconciled with God for what we have done to other humans. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

For too long we have supposed that we are fine as long as no one is too angry at us. But we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. When we recognize that wronging any of God’s creation is an insult to its Creator, we find our way toward reconciliation with God. And in repentance and reconciliation with the Creator, we find the power to be reconciled with His creatures.

“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13).

The first room of the Temple was part of this message of the double nature of sin. For the average Jew, the holy place had meaning as the recording place for his or her personal sin. Offerings of gratitude and peace were completed in the courtyard. But repentance could not be completed in the courtyard. Each animal sacrificed for sin had blood taken into the holy room and sprinkled there. Common people had blood from their sacrifices placed on the altar of incense. Leaders had the blood of their sacrifices placed on the sweet smelling altar and sprinkled on the veil separating between the two holy rooms.

Arriving at the sanctuary, the common Israelite had already gone through the awkward experience of traveling, perhaps for miles, with the national symbol of guilt. Your neighbors and the Jerusalem gossips all knew that you were going to the Temple because you believed you were guilty. Your family and close friends probably even guessed at what it was that your soul wrestled with. As you carried a dove or a loaf of bread, led a lamb or a cow to the church, you could not escape the notice of your neighbors and friends. You could not hide the offerings that were presented as you repented of whatever had separated between God and your soul. It may be that the confession itself was offered silently so that not even the priest knew what was the source of your guilt. But the act of confession was a private action that happened in a very public place. Repentance was carried out in the center of the nation and in its most visible location. Reconciliation with God occurred in a spot so visible that the very nation held you accountable for its durability.

Yet that public act was still a very individual one. Now that you had publicly admitted that you were a sinner, you must kill the animal. No one else did it for you. There was no group sacrifice for personal sin and no hired hands to do it for you. Repentance could never be delegated. It was individual and personal. It was a lonely path in a public place.

For the butcher this might have been easy. For many it was not. And then you watched the creature die, looking at you as its killer in its last act of life. Maybe the blood made you long to run away. Maybe the look in the lambs dying eyes haunted you. But the service was not done until the blood of the animal was taken into that holy place. I am sure that many times the people asked the priest for an assurance that the blood from their sacrifice had been deposited inside that sacred room in the appropriate places. After this much work and grief, they could not leave without the assurance that the service was complete.

As the individual soul went home, that holy place took on a new meaning. It was not only a beautiful marble palace for the king. It was not only a glorious national landmark. It was the reminder of the sum of all the believers’ sins. Every injustice to their families and friends was marked on that altar of incense. There was the blood marking a short temper which was overcome. There were the drippings, inaugurating the resolution of many misunderstandings based on habits of dishonesty. Marriages were saved and made strong by the adulterous eyes forgiven at the two altars. The holy room held the marks of success in abandoning greed, envy, and covetousness. So for almost all of the worshippers of the Creator of all humanity, the holy room was the end of the process of daily forgiveness, the vault to contain the record of their humanity. The stains of blood on that altar and the curtain recorded the vulnerable honesty of a church of sinners being remade into saints.

Forgiveness completed

But the Temple came to mean more than this. It was the demonstration of the sacred, solemn process of God’s forgiveness, He forgives instantly, yet conditionally: This simple truth is controversial in our world today. Millions have been taught that God forgives our evil when we ask Him to, and then it is over. People lose all humility and decency when you suggest otherwise.

If we will only compare our human relationships to our relationship with God, it might be easier to understand. Forgiveness is the riskiest act in the universe. It is opening up your friendship to someone who has treated you evilly. As humans we struggle with how and whether to do this. We find rejecting those that injure us much safer. But at some point every one of us humans does something that injures someone else. If all of us adopt a policy of rejecting every person that has injured us, life will become very lonely. Besides, the person who injured us has good qualities we will miss. We lose something important when we reject others. Forgiveness allows us to restore a relationship to those that have injured us when they take responsibility for having injured us. We can be safe with them when they take responsibility for their actions toward us and stop the injury.

Separately from the act of forgiveness is the personal preparation to forgive. That struggle can be difficult. But we need to stand ready to forgive every human that has injured us. This preparation allows us to live without a burden of stress and anger. Our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being require that we are willing to forgive. But we dare not actually forgive and fully repair our relationship until the other person takes responsibility for their injury to us. And even once the other person does confess his or her fault, we still cannot risk making ourselves fully vulnerable yet. We welcome them back into friendship. In doing this we lay ourselves open to the possibility of injury. They could hurt us all over again, the same way they hurt us last time. We protect ourselves by holding back the intimacy of what we think and feel and need in our inmost thoughts until the other person demonstrates the genuineness of his or her change of heart.

In fact, healthy humans forgive provisionally. They must. For permanent, unjustified forgiveness opens up the forgiver to be abused. When forgiveness comes without the forgiven persons owning up to their contribution and their faults, there is nothing to stop them from hurting others all over again. It is the apology, the confession, the repentance, the recognition of how wrong it is, the learning to hate your own mistake that protects the forgiver from new injuries. When we want the love and admiration of someone we admire and love, we are motivated to change to be kind to him or her.

People do not realize the consequences of believing that God forgives without reservation. We turn forgiveness into nothing at all. For if God forgives the murderer David for having killed his friend Uriah and stolen his wife without repentance and change, then God really is willing to let David keep murdering his friends. If God is willing to forgive me while I continue to do wrong, then wrong becomes right. As soon as wrong becomes right, we have no protection from evil at all. The idea that God would prefer to agree with murder and smile at one who does it, just because he or she said the rhetorical “I am sorry,” removes God from His position as Protector of the universe from all evil.

God forgives us provisionally. We could never live free from evil otherwise. We need His forgiveness to deliver us from the guilt and the passion and the propensity to injure God’s children. But God can never give us the complete benefit of a restored relationship with Him—eternal life outside of the world of sin—until we have lived a forgiven life.

At the end of Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story of a man who was forgiven. The parable presents the man as forgiven without any preconditions. But the forgiven man then behaved in a way that was unfitting and unjust. Forgiven for a large debt, he was impatient with a small one.

We are all like that man. God forgives us for greater injustices that we do toward Him than any human will ever do toward us. But, like the man in the parable, we are often unkind and impatient with those that injure us. We treat our family members, our relatives, our neighbors, and our friends like the man treated the person with the small debt.

When we treat other humans cruelly, we lose the forgiveness that God already gave us. “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).

And so that holy place stood as a perpetual monument to the forgiven sins across the world. It was a reminder of the joy and peace of reconciliation with God. It was a landmark of the soul’s journey as well as of the national grandeur. It was also a reminder that sin once forgiven was later unforgiven if the child of God treated his or her fellow humans with cruelty.

Nurtured by God

For the clergy the holy room had a very different experience. These men saw the bread constantly available and the light always shining. The smell of the incense was a welcome relief from the blood and bodies of animals in the courtyard. The quiet place, away from people bringing problems, anxieties, and concerns, was a relief. The coolness out of the sun, the solitude from being visible in the courtyard to the nation provided serenity. For the priests, the holy place felt like a sanctuary. To them, the room reminded them of the constant blessing provided by God. There they were nurtured by Him.

In the solemn silence the priest would discern that the table of bread was on the north side of the room (The Great Controversy, p. 413), just where the heavenly Father told us that He dwells. He would recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in lightening across the room from the table of bread. This is just as John the Revelator saw in heaven itself, when he describes the sevenfold Holy Spirit as visible in front of the throne of the Father. And He would recognize the work of Jesus, interceding at the altar of incense on the right hand of His Father. To the priest, the holy place would be the calm assuring realization of the constant every-day work between all three Divine Beings to help and to save sinners. It was the pledge of Divine nurture and help as the priests went out into the courtyard to serve the people.

All this was the experience of those three groups of people as they saw the earthly sanctuary in Palestine, thousands of years ago. The casual tourist, the child of God, and the priest each saw the holy place from his own experience.

That building was a shadow from what happens in heaven (Hebrews 8:5). Each of these experiences is still taking place today. We still have the same three groups of people.

Today many will only think of heaven and God’s work there as a tourist attraction; a nice place to visit if they ever have a chance.

For some, it will be a look of faith. They will trust that the blood of Jesus has been shed and God offers forgiveness. Heaven will be a reminder of the glorious experience of forgiveness itself. It will also be a reminder that forgiveness can be thrown away when we treat other debtors with less kindness than God has exercised in forgiving us.

And finally, for a few of those children of God, the great priesthood made up of all who trust Him, that heavenly sanctuary stands as the shelter in tumultuous experiences and a place of heavenly bread and heavenly light.

We are assured that someday the opportunity of forgiveness will close. The chance for repentance will be gone. All that the holy room stood for of old will only be a memory in the heart of millions of saved human beings. May God hasten that moment. But may God grant us all to first receive every benefit we possibly can get from the heavenly holy place!