by Roy Gane
Part I: Face in the Dirt
The cross is the altar to which Christ calls everyone on Planet Earth. A few days before His death, Jesus announced: "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (Jn 12:31-32). "Lifted up" did not mean ascending in glory to heaven. "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die" (verse 33). He would draw everyone to Himself at the cross.
The cross is the altar. Christ draws us there. Why do we come?
What draws us to the Hope diamond in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.? The gem is so rich in splendor that its full glory cannot be seen from any one angle. The display case turns every few seconds to unleash dazzling, constantly changing rainbow light from various combinations of perfect facets. Words cannot capture the experience. Why do we come?
A diamond is irresistible. But there is another kind of attraction.
"Lord, let me at least have someone know I'm alive and maybe come rescue me." This was the prayer of United States Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady in June of 1995 as he huddled in the hills of Bosnia, where his F-16 had been shot down. Hunted by the enemy, he clung to hope for six agonizing days. Burying his face in the dirt as searchers passed a few feet from him, subsisting on leaves, grass, and ants, and catching rain water in Ziploc plastic bags, O'Grady refused to give up. He was hungry and cold, but he knew that a superpower would be working to save him.
O'Grady's prayer was answered. He finally succeeded in getting a radio message to a fellow F-16 pilot flying over Bosnia, who notified his superiors that he had made contact with O'Grady. Headquarters immediately dispatched an armada of about forty planes, all for one man.
When the Marines were landing, they saw a man running toward their helicopter. It was O'Grady. He didn't wait until they got out and came looking for him. He reached the side door of the chopper when it had been open for only three seconds! Why did O'Grady come? He was drawn to the helicopter by an overwhelming desire to live and be free. When he boarded the aircraft, his pent-up emotions came out in heaving sobs of relief. Still shivering, he kept repeating: "Thank you, thank you, thank you." (Reported by Kevin Fedarko and Mark Thompson, "All for One," Time [June 19, 1995], pp. 21-26).
Jesus said He would draw all people to Himself. Is His cross like the
Hope diamond? Or like a helicopter that gives hope? Or maybe both and much more.
While Scott O'Grady was hugging the ground in Bosnia, he could communicate with U.S. forces only by means of a small radio with a limited range that could reach a plane flying over his area. For several days he could make no contact because of weather that kept friendly aircraft away. Too bad he didn't have a foolproof hotline directly to headquarters.
O'Grady did have a hotline to headquarters of another power. He later told an interviewer: "I prayed to God and asked him for a lot of things, and he delivered throughout the entire time."
For one thing, he could have perished from thirst after quickly consuming the 4-oz. packs of water in his emergency kit. But when he prayed for rain, God gave him rain. (Time, June 19, 1995, pp. 21, 23).
The Bible talks about O'Grady's hotline to heaven:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16).
"Help in time of need." When do I need help? All the time! I'm not desperately cold, alone, or hungry. I don't have cancer, AIDS, or heart disease. Nor am I hunted by a vicious human enemy. I have never been divorced and my marriage is happy. But in some ways my world is like Bosnia: I don't feel safe, secure, or satisfied. I'm trying to survive in alien territory. Sometimes I even feel like my face is in the dirt. I want a superpower to take me out of here.
For me the most dangerous place in the world is my own mind. It feels like a battleground, and the Bible explains why: "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12).
I'm grateful that I can make "radio contact" with God as O'Grady did, knowing that the "Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom" (2 Tim 4:18). I'm relieved to know that when I pray, Jesus is there on the other end of the line. He understands my weaknesses because He too has faced temptation (Heb 4:14-15; see above).
O'Grady waited for six days before he was picked up. We have been waiting a lot longer. It has been almost 2,000 years since Jesus died, rose to life again, and ascended to heaven. We are still coming to Him because He was lifted up on the cross. But what has He been doing all this time since He went to heaven?
In his magnificent book entitled The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey struggles with the Ascension of Christ:
So many times in the course of writing this book I have felt like one of those disciples, peering intently at a blank blue sky. I look for some sign of Jesus, some visual clue... Like the disciples' eyes, mine ache for a pure glimpse of the One who ascended. Why, I ask again, did he have to leave?... I have concluded, in fact, that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faithnot whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], pp. 227, 229).
Christ's prolonged absence seems like a mystery. But according to the book of Hebrews in the Bible, He is working as our High Priest in God's sanctuary in heaven, continuing to save us (Heb 4:14-16; 7:1-10:25). We can get in touch with Jesus where He is now. The Bible plainly reveals His ongoing and intimate interaction with our lives.
You may feel shot down, with your face in the dirt. But rescue is in
progress and you have a hotline to headquarters.
About forty aircraft converged on Bosnia to rescue Scott O'Grady. They came from a helicopter carrier in the Adriatic Sea, from other carriers in the region, and from bases in Italy. There were Marine CH-53E SuperStallion helicopters, AH-1W SuperCobra helicopter gunships, AV-8B Harrier jump jets, and F/A-18D Hornets, Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes, and Air Force A-10 Warthogs. These planes were coordinated by a NATO AWACS radar plane. They were controlled by a chain of command that went all the way up to the Pentagon and the White House. (Time, June 19, 1995, pp. 24-25).
What if O'Grady could have seen plans develop inside the Pentagon? What if he could have looked into the White House as President Bill Clinton conferred with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake regarding his plight? He would have been reassured, to say the least.
O'Grady would also have been assured if his vision had reached the command center belonging to the other superpower that was helping him. A man called John did have such a vision while he was stuck on the foreign island of Patmos:
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this." At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian (Rev 4:1-3).
After seeing that which was central and most impressive, namely the throne and its occupant, John looked around: "... and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads" (Rev 4:3-4). Then John saw even more and the sound track was added:
Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures... And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4:5-8).
"The Lord God, the Almighty!" The Commander-in-Chief of the Universe! His mighty angels number "myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands" (Rev 5:11). His control center throbs with limitless power! But there is more there than power: "Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth" (Rev 5:6).
The Lamb is Christ, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29; compare 1 Pet 1:19). Christ is there at the throne. It is a place of power, but also of grace and mercy.
John saw Christ represented as a sacrificial lamb that had just been slaughtered, with its throat slit. This was not a pretty sight. The description makes the point that although Christ was raised from the dead and has ascended to heaven, He continually carries the cross event with Him. He is still lifted up in order to draw all people to Himself at His altar.
The heavenly throne John saw is the same throne to which the book of Hebrews invites us to come boldly because Christ is our High Priest (4:14-16). But rather than speaking of Christ as our High Priest, Revelation 5 describes Him as a slaughtered Lamb. These ideas do not contradict each other. Christ is qualified to be our priest because He is also our Sacrifice:
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12; compare verses 14-15, 26, 28; 7:27).
The "greater and perfect tent" here refers to God's sanctuary or temple in heaven. This is where He dwells and where His throne is located (Ps 11:4; Jer 17:12).
God's sanctuary is the control center of the universe, pulsating with power and awesome glory. And it is a place of sanctuary, where weak and faulty people like us can find refuge. We can be reassured by knowing that God is working to rescue us through Christ, the Lamb.
C H A P T E R 4
"For the most part my face was in the dirt, and I was just praying they wouldn't see me or hear me. I was a scared little bunny rabbit just trying to hide, trying to survive." This is how Scott O'Grady describes his harrowing experience in Bosnia.
When the Marines landed, Scott was no longer alone. He was still in Bosnia, but he no longer had to hide or fend for himself with his survival kit containing a pistol, radio, first-aid kit, flares, and a few plastic bags. (Time, June 19, 1995, pp. 23, 25-26).
When Jesus came to Planet Earth as a baby, making himself vulnerable to evil as we are vulnerable, He gave us assurance that we are not alone. He is Immanuel, which means "God is with us" (see Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23).
Why was it necessary for Christ to empty Himself of His glory in order to bring God's presence to us (Phil 2:5-7)? Why can't we talk with God face to face as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden? Because the human race rebelled against God. He gave us a perfect world (Gen 1-2), but Eve and Adam were "shot down" by Satan's deception (Gen 3). Our world became enemy territory, as Bosnia was to O'Grady. But God is restoring us to Himself and He will restore our world. The end of the Bible records a promise from God's control center:
This promise is not yet fulfilled. But we need God with us now. Without His presence, we would be fending for ourselves in a hostile world. In fact, without His presence we would be part of the hostile world; we would be the enemy!
In the long centuries between Adam and Eve and the dawn of the twenty-first century, God has continually reassured us that He is with us. He gave hope to Adam and Eve that one of their descendants would crush the satanic serpent (Gen 3:15). He let Moses have a glimpse of His glory (Exod 33:18-34:8) and led the Israelites into a land that He had promised to give them. He showed Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel visions of Himself on His throne (Isa 6; Ezek 1; Dan 7:9-10). But the greatest reassurance is Jesus Christ Himself. Now that He is back in heaven, He brings us His presence through His Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16-18, 26; 16:7-14).
One of the most striking ways in which God has demonstrated His presence with faulty human beings is the residence that He set up among the ancient Israelites. He commanded Moses: "And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them" (Exod 25:8). So although God had a temple in heaven (Ps 11:4), He established a dwelling place in a sanctuary on earth.
The fact that the sanctuary was the palace of God, the divine king, was emphasized by its physical structure. First, it had two apartments (Exod 26:33). An inner room contained the ark of the covenant, a gold-covered box (25:10-22) over which the Lord was enthroned (verse 22; Num 7:89; Isa 37:16). This room functioned as the "throne room" of His palace. Because the holy God was right there, it was called the "holy of holies," that is, the most holy place.
An outer "living room" contained items of furniture that were found in homes of well-to-do people: a table for food (Exod 25:23-30), lamps on a stand for light (verses 31-40), and an incense burner to sweeten the atmosphere (30:1-10). In this outer apartment, called the "holy" place, the priests performed regular service for their Lord. Every morning and evening they tended the lamps and burned the incense (Exod 30:7-8). Once a week on Sabbath they changed the bread (Lev 24:1-9). The priests were the servants of the divine king.
While everything in the sanctuary was "before the Lord," who was enthroned over the ark, the incense burner/altar had a special connection to the ark. This altar was located in front of the ark of the covenant (Exod 40:5), with only a veil separating one from the other (verses 3, 21, 26). It appears that incense from the altar could waft over the veil into the most holy place. Because of the functional connection between the incense altar and the ark, the book of Kings regarded the incense altar as belonging to the inner sanctuary (1 Ki 6:22) even though it was located in the outer apartment.
The book of Hebrews refers to the same idea: "Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant..." (Heb 9:3-4; RSV). This translation of the Greek original is accurate. The expression "having the golden altar..." means that this altar belonged to the most holy place in terms of function, as in the book of Kings. It does not indicate that the altar was actually located in the most holy place. By way of analogy, if you put a stereo system at one end of your dining room for the purpose of providing music for the adjacent living room, the system serves the living room even though it is located in the dining room.
Before a solid temple was built by King Solomon (1 Ki 6-7), the sanctuary structure was a portable tabernacle/tent that could be easily dismantled when the Israelites moved from one place to another. Its walls were made of boards that could be pulled apart and its roof consisted of fabrics and skins that could be folded up (Exod 26).
Outside the tabernacle was a courtyard (Exod 27:9-19), just as an earthly king would have an enclosure around his palace. In the courtyard was a large basin (laver) from which the Lord's servants, the priests, were to draw water for washing their hands and feet before approaching Him (30:17-21).
Also in the courtyard, there was something that an earthly king would not have: an altar for priests to burn sacrifices to Him (Exod 27:1-8). God is with us, but He is not just like us. So while the sanctuary emphasized the fact that God resided with His people, it also showed that He is special. While we are created in God's image (Gen 1:27), we are not identical to Him: "It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen." (1 Tim 6:16).
To make it clear that God is not just like us, there were a number of differences between the sanctuary and the palace of a human king, both in terms of physical structure and activities carried out there. First, a human king sits on a seat called a throne. But the glorious Presence of God hovered above the ark of the covenant (Num 7:89). Although Bible translations refer to the golden lid/cover of the ark of the covenant as the "mercy seat" (Exod 25:17), it was not shaped like a chair and it was not a place for God to sit. The Hebrew word referring to the lid is related to the word "atone." That the ark's lid was a place of atonement, or reconciliation with God, is indicated by the fact that blood was sprinkled on it to make atonement on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:14).
A second difference is the fact that bread, called "bread of the Presence" (Exod 25:30), was placed on the golden table inside the sanctuary. But God did not consume this bread as a human being would. Rather, He gave it to His priests for them to eat (Lev 24:5-9). Other ancient people "fed" their gods regularly by giving food to idols. They thought the gods really needed human food. For example, in an Old Babylonian story about a man called Atrahasis, a flood wiped out the human population so that there were no sacrifices to the gods. As a result, the gods suffered terribly from hunger and thirst. When Atrahasis offered a sacrifice after the flood (as Noah did: Gen 8:20-21), the starving gods smelled it and crowded around like flies to devour it. But the God of Israel says: "If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?" (Ps 50:12-13). The food that the Israelites presented to the Lord did not feed Him; it acknowledged that He provided for them!
Third, the lamps inside the sanctuary were kept burning all night, as if God needed no sleep (Exod 27:21; Lev 24:3). And in fact, unlike a human king, He doesn't! "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps 121:4). When you go to sleep at night you can rest assured that God is watching out for you.
Fourth, God received gifts of food from the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard (Num 28:2). But He received this food in the form of smoke as a "sweet smell" (Lev 1:9) rather than eating it in a human manner. As we saw earlier, God does not need human food (Ps 50:12-13). Food gifts to Him are token acknowledgments of human love; they do not serve the purpose of feeding God. When your child gives you a little bouquet of dandelions, the gift is valuable not because you need dandelions but because you value the love with which they are given.
The sanctuary teaches us that God is present with us, but this is no ordinary encounter. Although our Lord is not enthroned above the pulpits in our churches today in the same way that He hovered above the ark, we should remember that He is present with us when we gather to worship Him (Matt 18:20). Within the contexts of our respective cultures, we should always acknowledge that while God makes Himself familiar, we should maintain our sense of awe rather than slipping into undue familiarity.
Through His sanctuary, through Christ's life on earth, and in many other ways God has taken the trouble to provide us with overwhelming evidence that He has not abandoned us. We are still in "Bosnia," but we are not alone. The Superpower is with us. "If God is for us, who is against us?" (Rom 8:31).