Part II: The Model and the Messiah
C H A P T E R 5
My brother, Calvin, was playing outside the home of some people who had
invited our family for a special occasion. He was five years old. To him, the most
interesting thing in the yard was a fish pond. So he played as close as he could get to
the edge of it. Naturally, he slipped and fell in. By itself this would not seem serious,
but he was wearing his best clothes, the pond was large and deep, and he didn't know how
When my mother saw Calvin's plight, she was sure that he was about to drown. Her
options for rescuing him were limited. She was wearing her best dress and was not a
confident swimmer. Frantic, she grabbed what she could find—a small stick of
wood—and held it out to my brother, getting as close to the edge as she dared.
The stick didn't reach. Mother's plan didn't work. Panicking by now, she screamed for
help. Fortunately someone else was able to fish Calvin out of the pond.
To be effective, a rescue operation must follow a workable plan. O'Grady's rescue had
such a plan. Aircraft from different branches of the U.S. military met at a certain time
and flew into Bosnia in a predetermined flight pattern. Having studied maps and other
data, the airmen and soldiers knew what they could expect along the way. The plan had
stages: The aircraft would meet and fly together, the helicopters would land to get
O'Grady while various planes provided cover, and then all the aircraft would return to
their carriers or bases.
Trained personnel involved in difficult rescue operations prepare for action through
practice. They go through the motions, making sure they can do everything right and as
fast as necessary.
Plans and practice show ahead of time what is supposed to happen. O'Grady would have
been delighted to receive detailed plans. He would not have said, "Don't bother me
with all that detail." On the contrary, he would have asked for more information so
that he could have more confidence and be better prepared to cooperate with his rescuers.
Plans can be expressed in various forms. They can be repeated orally, written down,
drawn in diagrams or on maps, or even acted out. This last kind of plan is especially
useful because it is a practice run in which the parts of the plan must work together in
real time. It is like a prototype, or working model, of a car. Something can appear to
work in theory and on paper, but there is nothing like trying it out with a dynamic model.
God has a plan to rescue us: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only
begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life"
(Jn 3:16; NASB). Christ is coming again to take us with Him:
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have
told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I
will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also (Jn
In the Bible, God reveals His plan to us so that we might have confidence and cooperate
with Him. The basic way the plan works is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). But we have
been so out of touch with God that He must teach us what "by grace through
faith" means. He uses the whole Bible to give us detailed instructions, coming at
"grace through faith" from many different angles. Such angles include stories of
divine grace involving people of faith and people without faith, calls to repentance
spoken by prophets and apostles, and songs celebrating divine deliverance.
In the Bible we have God's plan not only in theory, but also worked out in the lives of
people whom He has rescued. The Bible also describes a kind of prototype of our salvation
that modeled Christ's rescue operation, so that we can comprehend what He is doing for
us. This prototype consisted of rituals performed at the ancient Israelite sanctuary,
where God established His earthly residence with His people.
Although the Israelites were faulty as we are, God taught them how to interact
intimately with Him from day to day. He also revealed to them the stages of God's
long-range plan to save all who come to the altar of Christ's cross, where He is lifted
up. Just as reconciliation to God was acted out for an ancient Israelite when he/she
slaughtered a sacrificial animal and a priest put its blood and flesh on the altar (Lev
4:27-31), so all who are willing are reconciled to God by the sacrificial death and
priestly mediation of Jesus Christ (Heb 9).
The idea that the Israelite sanctuary functioned as a prototype is clearly indicated in
the book of Hebrews. Speaking of Israelite priests, the writer explains:
They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for
Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, "See that you make everything
according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain." But Jesus has now
obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better
covenant, which has been enacted through better promises (Heb 8:5-6).
The sanctuary on earth, with its animal sacrifices and human priests, was a
"sketch and shadow" of the real sanctuary in heaven, which has the truly
effective sacrifice and perfect priesthood of Christ.
The earthly sanctuary and its rituals had limitations, just as a prototype of an
automobile is not the same as a regular production car. But a prototype is important
because it teaches how something is supposed to work when it is fully developed, when
"the rubber hits the road."
Why did God establish the sanctuary rituals as a prototype of our salvation? Did He
need to practice saving us? Of course not. But we need to understand how to accept the
salvation that God offers to us free of charge.
The basics of salvation are so simple that a little child can grasp them. But God has
revealed much more for those who want to "go on to maturity" (Heb 6:1; RSV). The
details are for our benefit. They not only show us more clearly how we are saved, they
teach us what God is like. If we want to spend eternity with God, it is a good idea to get
acquainted with Him now as much as possible.
Details are important to relationships. When I was dating Connie, the young woman who
later became my wife, I wanted to know everything I could about her. I was interested in
her childhood, family, friends, values, plans, habits, talents, and the way she treated
people. Nothing was unimportant. Everything was fascinating. I find the same to be true of
what I learn about God.
God's rescue operation is big because He has a world to save from an enemy that is
within each human being. But He has a plan, just as He had a plan to deliver the ancient
world from Assyria:
The Lord of hosts has sworn: As I have designed, so shall it be; and as I have
planned, so shall it come to pass. I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my
mountains trample him under foot; his yoke shall be removed from them, and his burden from
their shoulders. This is the plan that is planned concerning the whole earth; and
this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has
planned, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?
The might of Assyria is long gone. Connie and I saw what is left when we participated
in the 1989 University of California Archaeological Expedition to Nineveh, the last
capital of the Assyrian Empire, located in northern Iraq. The towering city walls are
broken down, and worn by centuries of weather. Sheep graze on the high mound of Kuyunjik
where Sennacherib's vast "Palace Without A Rival" once stood. My wife, who
specializes in Mesopotamian archaeology, was confronted with particularly poignant
evidence for the end of Assyria as she excavated bones of people killed at the Halzi Gate
when Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 B.C.
Yes, Assyria is gone. God planned it that way. Our enemy will be gone too.
C H A P T E R 6
Surviving consumes a lot of time and energy. For Scott O'Grady there
were enemies to escape, Ziploc plastic bags to fill with rainwater, and ants to catch for
food. But he wasn't so busy that he neglected to call for help. Even if he had been able
to make himself comfortable, his overwhelming desire would have been to get out of enemy
I'm not in Bosnia, but I am busy surviving. If I don't do my work, nobody else will do
it for me and I will be in deep trouble. There are deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and
problems to solve. I don't have time for important things. I only have time for the things
that are most important.
Compared to O'Grady, I am comfortable. I am healthy, have plenty of food, a roof over
my head, a good job, supportive work associates, many friends, and loving family members.
But neither my busy schedule nor my comfort keep me from thinking about a better world, a
world the way it is supposed to be. I want to go home.
Because I have an overwhelming desire to go to a place of eternal freedom and security,
I want to understand God's rescue plan as much as possible. What has Christ done and what
is He doing for me now?
John the Baptist summarized the essence of what Christ does for me when he introduced
Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). Christ
rescues me through His sacrifice. So if I can comprehend His sacrifice, I will grasp His
As a prototype of God's plan, the animal sacrifices at the Israelite sanctuary taught
about salvation in Christ and were fulfilled by His sacrifice. Animal sacrifices
themselves could not really save anyone:
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of
these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year
after year, make perfect those who approach... For it is impossible for the blood of bulls
and goats to take away sins (Heb 10:1, 4).
So why should I take time to study the ancient animal sacrifices? When I have "the
real thing," why bother with a prototype?
Here are some reasons for looking at God's plan as it is revealed in the sanctuary.
First, the sanctuary prototype continues to be useful because it was an earthly
prototype. It illustrates spiritual and heavenly realities through physical and earthly
things that we can more easily comprehend. For the same reason, Jesus used parables to
explain the kingdom of heaven. He likened the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed (Matt
13:31), yeast (verse 33), treasure hidden in a field (verse 44), a merchant in search of
fine pearls (verse 45), and so on.
In the Israelite sanctuary the dynamics of God's plan of salvation were acted out on a
day-to-day basis so that these interactions between Him and His people could be physically
seen, powerfully experienced, and described in concrete terms that people of subsequent
eras could understand. The sanctuary was God's schoolhouse on earth, where a healthy
relationship with Him was fostered and celebrated, and the consequences of wrong-doing
A second reason for looking at God's plan as revealed in the sanctuary is that the
sanctuary rituals show us Christ's sacrifice from various angles, so that we can fully
appreciate the richness of what He does. For example, all the flesh of a burnt offering
animal was consumed on the altar (Lev 1), pointing to the fact that Christ's sacrifice
would consume Him (compare 1 Cor 11:24; Heb 7:27). On the other hand, part of the flesh of
a well-being offering (= "peace" or "fellowship" offering) was eaten
by the person who brought the sacrifice (Lev 7:15-21), showing that we receive life by
accepting Christ's life (Jn 6:53).
A third reason is the fact that the sanctuary rituals were prophetic in that they
pointed forward to crucial stages of salvation, such as Christ's death on the cross and
His mediation for us in heaven (compare Heb 7-10). The rituals symbolized the drama of the
ages and illuminated the role of Christ in His battle with evil. By compressing a vast
sweep of salvation history into rituals, God has shown us how everything fits together,
just as a map or model of a city gives perspective that a visitor looking up at
skyscrapers does not have.
The sanctuary guides our understanding of salvation by grace through faith. It answers
questions that have an enormous impact upon the way we relate to Christ and the salvation
that He offers. For example: Was atonement completed at the cross or can I be involved in
atonement now? Is Christ's atonement only a "legal" matter, or does it involve
transformation of mind and character? Does a Christian who commits an act of sin retain
his/her assurance of salvation? Why are we saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9) but
judged according to our works (Eccl 12:14)?
By understanding ancient Israelite rituals, such as personal purification by water (Lev
15:5-8) or the Passover service (Exod 12), we can more powerfully experience our own
Christian rituals, such as baptism (Rom 6:3-4) and Communion (Matt 26:17-30).
Language and concepts related to the sanctuary are widespread in the Bible. Some books,
such as Daniel, Hebrews, and Revelation, present their messages by referring extensively
to ideas connected with the sanctuary. Since these books have special relevance for the
time in which we live, we need to grasp their messages. To do that we must understand the
sanctuary concepts through which they present their messages.
There are no topics more relevant to us today than the profound ideas conveyed through
the sanctuary and its services, namely, the presence of God, the power of
His salvation through Jesus Christ, and His promise of restoration to immortality
and full intimacy with Him. Because the sanctuary is about Jesus where He is now, it
is worthy of our highest attention. It answers our most vital questions because it is a
dynamic model of salvation by grace through faith, a model that reveals the character of
I am busy surviving here, but not too busy to keep in touch with God and to find out
more about His plan to rescue me.
C H A P T E R 7
A plan or prototype is useful only if it corresponds to that which it is
supposed to represent. A prototype of a Chevy Astro van won't help you much in designing a
new Ford Taurus sedan. Similarly, a plan for rescuing a group of hostages at Entebbe,
Uganda won't be particularly useful for getting a lone airman out of Bosnia.
To be worthwhile for understanding God's heavenly sanctuary and plan of salvation, the
earthly sanctuary and its services must correspond to them. There is a close
correspondence between the two sanctuaries because the earthly sanctuary was a copy or
"shadow" of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 8:5; compare Exod 25:9). Although the
earthly sanctuary services functioned as a prototype of Christ's later ministry in God's
heavenly sanctuary, the heavenly sanctuary itself existed before the earthly sanctuary.
The earthly services showed the Israelites what God's heavenly sanctuary was like already
and what would happen there in the future, just as a rescue plan shows existing geography
plus action that will occur there.
In Old Testament times, God resided in His heavenly sanctuary (Ps 11:4) as He does now
(Rev 4-5, 11:19; 15:5-8). But He also had an earthly residence in order to dwell among His
people (Exod 25:8). The Presence of God connected the two sanctuaries.
Christ connects the two sanctuaries in the sense that features of the Israelite
sanctuary represented various aspects or roles of Christ, who ministers for us in the
heavenly sanctuary. The animal sacrifices represented Christ (Jn 1:29; Heb 9:12-14, 26-28;
10:1-10) and so did the Israelite priests (Heb 4:14-5:10; 7:11-8:7; 9:11-28; 10:11-18).
God's law in the ark of the covenant was based on love (Matt 22:36-40), which is the
character of Christ because "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8) and Christ is God (Col 2:9;
Jn 8:58). The "bread of the Presence" symbolized the life-giving power of
Christ, who said "I am the bread of life" (Jn 6:48). The light from the lamps on
the golden lampstand pointed to Jesus, who said, "I am the light of the world"
(Jn 9:5). Just as the basin/laver contained water for purification, water flowed from
Christ's body when He was sacrificed to purify us from evil (Jn 19:34; 1 Jn 5:6-8).
The incense that ascended with the prayers of the people (compare Lk 1:9-10; Rev 8:3-4)
made it possible for the prayers to be accepted by God. In order to pray effectively, we
need the sweet aroma of Christ's sacrifice going up as incense to God like the smoke from
an atoning burnt offering (Lev 1:9). Strengthening the connection between incense and the
smoke of sacrifices is the fact that the Hebrew word for burning a sacrifice on the altar
means "turn into smoke" and comes from the same root as the word for incense.
Incense can provide atonement, as shown by Numbers 16:46-48, which describes how Aaron
took a censer and ran among the Israelites with incense to make atonement for them during
a plague from the Lord that had already begun. Verse 48 is chilling: "He stood
between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped." Where the incense went,
people lived. The incense halted the progress of death. But where it did not reach, people
died. They needed the incense. It was a life and death matter.
We need the incense of Christ's atonement with our prayers. It is a life and death
matter for us and those for whom we pray. Our prayers can go with Christ's atoning power
to people who need it, between the dead and the living.
The Israelite altar of sacrifice pointed forward to the cross of Christ outside the
city of Jerusalem, the ultimate altar of sacrifice.
We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat. For
the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest
as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside
the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Heb 13:10-12).
In an animal sacrifice for sin, blood was placed on the four horns of the altar and the
animal's fat was burned on the altar between the four horns (Lev 4:30-31). The
"horns" were parts of the altar that projected upward at the four top corners.
The appearance of the sacrifice on the altar, viewed from above, would be strikingly
similar to the appearance of Christ on the cross, viewed from the front. Just as the altar
had blood on its extremities (horns) and body parts in the middle, creating an X pattern,
so Christ's injured extremities (head, two hands, and feet) were bleeding from nails and
thorns, and the rest of His body was in the middle. The altar graphically represented the
cross on which Jesus was lifted up, where He draws all people to Himself (Jn 12:32).
So far we have seen that the sanctuary on earth and the ministry of its priests
correspond in a number of ways to God's sanctuary in heaven and the ministry of Christ
there. Since this kind of correspondence connects something down here with something up
there, it can be called "vertical" correspondence.
The earthly sanctuary and its services prophesied later events of salvation history,
whether they took place on earth or in heaven. For example, the altar on earth represented
the cross, which came later in history, also on earth. So the connection between the altar
and the cross is one of "historical" correspondence. Since we think of history
as a horizontal timeline, this can also be called "horizontal correspondence."
Other examples of "historical" correspondence are found in the ancient
Israelite spring festivals (Lev 23; Num 28), which precisely prophesied a series of events
at the beginning of the Christian era. The lamb slain at the Passover festival (Exod 12:6;
Lev 23:5) symbolized Christ (1 Cor 5:7), who was slain at the time of Passover (Jn 19:14).
The sheaf of barley that an Israelite priest was to present before God as a "first
fruits" offering on the day after the Sabbath following Passover (Lev 23:11) also
pointed to Christ, who rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath (Jn 20:1) as the
"first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15:20). The first fruits
of wheat offered to God at the "feast of weeks," which we know as Pentecost (Lev
23:16-20), pointed to the early "harvest" of conversions on the day of
Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2.
The Israelite sanctuary with its rituals was a useful prototype because it corresponded
to God's sanctuary up in heaven and to Christ's work for us down the timeline of history.
By investigating the earthly sanctuary, we can learn about later and greater realities.
C H A P T E R 8
A plan or prototype is not "the real thing." It can have
limitations. A preliminary model of the space shuttle looked like a space shuttle, but it
could not go into orbit around the earth. The U.S. military had a plan to rescue O'Grady
that corresponded to his situation, but the plan itself could not save O'Grady.
While the ancient sanctuary rituals reflected God's rescue operation with remarkable
clarity and precision, they had serious limitations due to the fact that they were
earthbound activities officiated by faulty, human priests. Here are some of the
Whereas the Israelite priests were sinful and needed sacrifices on their own behalf
(Lev 4:3-12; 16:6, 11-14, 33), Christ is a sinless high priest who needs no sacrifice for
Himself (Heb 4:15; 7:26-28).
Ancient sacrifices were offered over and over again. Some were performed every day
of the year (Num 28:1-8). They were repetitive and redundant, overlapping with one another
in their meaning because they all pointed to Christ's one sacrifice (Heb 9:28). For Him to
save us, He needed to die only once.
Rituals performed with animals, grain, and other materials could not illustrate all
details of salvation. In some respects they merely provided tantalizing hints. To
comprehend God's rescue plan, we need the rest of the Bible along with the ritual
portions. How would we know, for example, that the risen Christ was represented by a first
fruits offering of barley (Lev 23:11) unless the New Testament made the connection for us
(1 Cor 15:20)?
The ancient ritual system was for the nation of Israel. But the benefit of Christ's
sacrifice is worldwide (Jn 1:29; 3:16).
The ancient Israelite sacrificial system did not provide for forgiveness in all
cases of sin even when the sinners repented. For example, when David committed adultery
with Bathsheba and then arranged for the destruction of her husband, God's law condemned
him to death (Deut 22:22; Num 35:31). There was no animal sacrifice that could free him
from this condemnation, as he himself recognized (Ps 51:16). When Manasseh sacrificed his
son (2 Ki 21:6; 2 Chron 33:6), God's law condemned him to death plus the divine penalty of
being "cut off" (Lev 20:2-3). No animal sacrifice could remedy his situation.
Christ's better sacrifice, on the other hand, is available to all who truly and humbly
accept it, no matter what they have done. So when God forgave Old Testament people like
David and Manasseh (2 Sam 12:13; 2 Chron 33:13), He must have done it directly on the
basis of the sacrifice of Christ that was to come, without animal sacrifices functioning
as the means by which they received Christ's sacrifice.
An Israelite priest bore the guilt or punishability (liability to punishment) of
people who brought their sacrifices for sin to the sanctuary (Lev 10:17). As our priest,
Christ bore not only our punishability, but also our punishment. Unlike the Israelite
priests, Christ actually died for human sin as a sacrifice (compare Isa 53; Jn 1:29). This
fusion of priestly and sacrificial roles proves that Christ died as our substitute: As
priest He bore our sin, and then as sacrificial victim He died for that sin.
Because even the Israelite high priest was sinful, he had to be shielded from God's
glorious Presence by a veil when he performed rituals in the holy place during most of the
year. And when he entered the most holy place on the Day of Atonement, he was shielded by
a smoke screen (Lev 16:12-13). But because Christ is sinless, He does not need to be
shielded from His Father in any way. Mark 16:19 says that when Jesus ascended to heaven,
He "sat down at the right hand of God" (see also Heb 1:3). Perhaps for this
reason, the apostle John does not mention a veil separating two apartments in the heavenly
sanctuary (Rev 4-5). If there is a heavenly counterpart to the veil, as Hebrews 6:19
indicates there is, it may be open. In any case, it would not have the protective function
of the veil in the earthly sanctuary.
Like most prototypes, the earthly sanctuary rituals had limitations. Unless we
recognize these limitations, we may get in trouble by attempting to make the prototype
work on its own or by imposing limitations on our understanding of Christ's ministry for
us. In the same way, it is not recommended that you get into a model of the space shuttle
and try to blast off. Nor should you conclude that the space shuttle won't work because
the model can't fly.
The Israelite sanctuary is valuable in accomplishing the purpose for which it was
intended: To teach ancient and modern people who God is and what He is doing for them. The
sanctuary is a teaching model, so that we can learn how to live with God and respond to
The sanctuary leads us to a personal experience with Christ on the cross and in
the heavenly sanctuary. Studying the sanctuary should not be an end in itself. If our
study of the sanctuary only results in more elaborate theories of salvation, something is
wrong. Unless knowledge of the sanctuary affects our lives, we are no better off than
O'Grady would have been if he had done nothing more than sit and study diagrams of a
proposed rescue plan.
C H A P T E R 9
When you have a plan, you need to understand it. The
Pentagon may devise a brilliant strategy, but unless the airmen and soldiers who carry out
the operation can decipher the plan so that they know what they are supposed to do, the
result will be chaos and failure.
The Bible presents God's plan to rescue us. We are not carrying out the rescue. God is
doing that for us through Christ. But God reveals His plan to us so that we can cooperate
with Him. When you are being rescued, it is important that you accept efforts made for you
by cooperating. If O'Grady had taken a long hike away from the place where he knew the
Marines were coming to get him, he could still be in Bosnia today. Similarly, God wants us
to come to Him rather than run away from Him. Do we really want to be rescued? Or have we
decided to settle in enemy territory?
God gives us the sanctuary prototype early in the Bible, in the book of Leviticus. This
book, which presents the bulk of the sanctuary services, is challenging because it
indicates meanings of rituals only by brief expressions or by implication. We have the
plan, but we need to know how to read it.
Here are some guidelines for understanding Leviticus:
The sanctuary was the stage for divine-human interaction.
The sanctuary was the central place of God's Presence among His people (Exod 25:8). It
was the place that God designated for interactions between Himself and His people through
ritual. Therefore the sanctuary was called the "tent of meeting" (Lev 1:3). The
structure was the stage where the drama took place.
People who attend a Shakespeare play don't spend the whole evening examining the stage.
As Shakespeare is supposed to have said: "the play's the thing." The drama
itself carries the essence of the meaning.
The sanctuary was a special place because of the one who resided there. It provided the
setting for the relationship between God and His people to grow, just as a house in Twain
Harte, California, was the setting in which my relationship with Connie flourished. I
didn't spend all my time admiring the tall fireplace, the huge picture window, and the
long, wooded driveway. I was enjoying being with Connie as our relationship grew, to the
point that one evening while we were out on the driveway I asked her to marry me.
Not all details must have distinct spiritual meaning.
We should not assume that there is separate spiritual significance in each little
detail of the sanctuary structure, including every material, hook, clasp, and pole. Here
are some reasons:
First, the portable sanctuary built in the wilderness under the direction of Moses was
followed by the temple of Solomon, which was followed by the Second Temple. These temples
took the place of the portable sanctuary as valid reflections of the heavenly sanctuary.
See 1 Chronicles 28:19, indicating that the Lord directed the plan of Solomon's temple.
But the temples were larger, permanent structures, which did not have all the same details
as the portable sanctuary. While the wilderness sanctuary was a small tabernacle having
walls made of boards that came apart from each other and a roof made of fabrics and skins
(Exod 26), Solomon's temple was solidly made of stone and wood, and twice as long and
twice as wide as the wilderness sanctuary. Solomon's temple had doors instead of curtains,
ten lampstands instead of only one, and it included side chambers, a porch, and two huge
pillars (1 Ki 6-7). But Solomon's temple had the same basic layout as the wilderness
sanctuary: most holy place, holy place, and courtyard, and it had the same kinds of
Second, the Bible simply does not assign distinct spiritual meanings to all the details
needed by practical necessity to make the portable tabernacle stand up. If the Bible does
not give these meanings, what right do I have to give them?
Third, getting bogged down in speculating about meanings that are not indicated in the
Bible distracts us from what is really important, namely, the interactions between God and
His people that were shown in the rituals of the sanctuary.
The Bible is our primary source of information.
The Bible is our only primary text source regarding the ancient Israelite sanctuary. We
need to build our interpretations upon careful consideration of all available evidence in
The New Testament helps us comprehend the full significance of the sanctuary. But study
should proceed from Leviticus to the New Testament rather than the other way around. Once
Leviticus is properly understood in its own terms, later writings expand our
comprehension. But reading Leviticus as though Moses knew the New Testament can result in
Rabbinic sources such as the Mishnah and Talmud are interesting and helpful in many
ways. But they do not provide a completely reliable basis for understanding what happened
in the wilderness sanctuary in the time of Moses, because they are late (after 70 A.D.)
recollections and in some cases rationalized reconstructions of what was done in the
Second Temple over a thousand years after Moses.
Especially damaging is the practice of reading one's own ideas into the sanctuary. As
in computer programming, or in David Koresh's self-focused interpretations of the book of
Revelation, if you put garbage in, you will get garbage out.
A common pitfall is to assume connections that the Bible does not make. For example, it
is true that the inner veil of the sanctuary was hung on four pillars (Exod 26:32). It is
also true that the prophet Zechariah saw in vision four chariots coming from between two
bronze mountains (Zech 6:1). But if I interpret the four pillars in light of the four
chariots because both simply involve the number "four," I make a connection that
is not in the Bible. The pillars and chariots are not linked to each other any more than
they are linked to the four faces on Mt. Rushmore.
Just because a group of concepts is beautiful, inspiring, or logical on the surface
doesn't mean that it is right. A system of ideas is like a house. It must not only hold
together, it must also be built on a solid foundation in the proper location. What use is
a mansion built on the wrong lot?
Meanings of rituals are found in the ritual texts themselves.
The book of Leviticus prescribes how rituals were to be performed and in some cases
describes how rituals were actually carried out (Lev 8-9), but we cannot say that
Leviticus contains rituals. Rituals consist of activity plus meaning and they are
performed rather than read. The ideal way to study rituals is to physically observe them,
but the Bible provides our only access to the Israelite rituals, both in terms of what was
done and what those actions represented.
We cannot figure out the meanings of the Israelite rituals from their physical actions
alone because physical actions do not mean anything in and of themselves. That actions
have no inherent meaning is shown by the fact that the same action can mean different
things. If you stand by the side of a road in the United States with your arm partly
stretched out and your thumb extending upward from your fist, people know that you want a
ride. If you do this in some other parts of the world, this gesture may not mean anything
at all, except perhaps that you have a sore thumb in need of a band-aid. An action only
means something if meaning is attached to it.
In the Bible, a ritual action can mean different things at different times, depending
upon what God says it means. For example, in Leviticus 16 sprinkling blood seven times
atones for or purifies part of the sanctuary (verses 14, 16). In another part of the same
ritual, the same action reconsecrates an object (verse 19). In other rituals, prescribed
in Leviticus 4, sevenfold sprinklings of blood atone for persons (verses 6, 17).
In addition to relying on explanations in Leviticus regarding what was to be done
in the rituals, we must also rely on indications in Leviticus regarding what the rituals meant.
So when we read Leviticus, we need to distinguish between descriptions of physical
actions and indications of meanings that are attached to those actions by the
authority behind the ritual system, namely, God. For example, Leviticus 1:4 reads:
"You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be
acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you." The first part of the verse
describes the action: "You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt
offering." The second part explains the meaning of this action: "and it shall be
acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you."
A method of study must fit that which is studied.
It is a waste of time to look for a jellyfish with a metal detector or to give a
pregnancy test to a man. Not long ago a male colleague of mine was given a blood test. One
of the four vials of blood accidentally ended up in the pregnancy section of the lab in
spite of a label that included his masculine name. (The result was negative).
To study something, you must first understand the nature of that which you are
studying. If your subject is far away, you might use a telescope. If it is very small, you
would likely use a microscope. If it is ritual, which consists of a system of activity to
which meaning is attached, it would make sense to examine the activity in relation to its
God's plan, as shown in the sanctuary, takes some deciphering. But we shall find that
it is well worth the effort!
C H A P T E R 10
Stacey, Scott O'Grady's sister, was worried about him when he
was missing in action. She said, "When you're not in control of a situation that
involves a person you love with all your heart, you go crazy. You grasp for hope and a
prayer." She could not see him, talk to him, or give him a hug. All she could do was
to hug her brother's old and worn teddy bear, explaining later, "You cling to
whatever you can." (Time, June 19, 1995, p. 26). Stacey had no access to Scott
because he was out of reach.
Finally Scott managed to communicate by radio with an American pilot flying over
Bosnia. The pilot could not see O'Grady, but he could communicate with him. There was
access, but it was limited.
As sinful, mortal human beings we cannot see God. Our direct access to God was cut off
when Satan "shot down" the human race by deceiving Adam and Eve. Because Adam
and Eve sinned, they were banished from Eden and could not approach God as they had before
We have lost our access, but not totally. God has been reaching out to us through
messages recorded in the Bible, through Christ, who came to live with us, and through His
Holy Spirit. Even though we cannot physically see God, we can reach out to Him through
prayer, just as O'Grady could talk to a pilot flying an F-16 high above Bosnia.
Another limited way people have interacted with God is through rituals. An Israelite
could come to the sanctuary, the "tent of meeting" (Lev 1:1, 3, 5), and give
something tangible to God to express his/her devotion, thanks, or desire to receive
forgiveness. God received the offering even though His hand did not appear from the sky to
The sanctuary was a controlled environment that made interaction possible in spite of
the separation between God and human beings. It was somewhat like the glass
"bubbles" devised by modern medical science to protect people whose bodies lack
functional immune systems. A few years ago there was such a "bubble boy," who
would have died if he had ventured out of the environment that isolated him from germs.
Through his bubble he could see people, talk to them, and come close to them. But he could
not touch them or even sit on his mother's lap.
In the Israelite sanctuary, God came as close to His people as possible. But His
glorious Presence was behind the inner veil in the most holy place. Only the high priest
could enter there and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Even then, he
had to be shielded from God's glory by an incense smoke screen or he would die (verses
12-13). Unlike the condition of the "bubble boy," God's holy glory was lethal to
people outside. But just as the "bubble boy" had to be isolated from disease,
God maintained a pure environment, separate from the world of sin outside.
To understand how God interacted with human beings through rituals at His sanctuary, we
need to know how rituals in general work. First, a ritual is a system of activity. Such a
system could involve slaughtering an animal, putting its blood on the sides of the altar,
and burning its flesh (Lev 1).
Activity systems are not difficult to comprehend because we do many of them every day.
Think of the system of activities by which you clean your teeth. Taking off the cap of the
toothpaste tube, spreading the toothpaste on your brush, brushing upper and lower teeth,
and rinsing your mouth are all included in the activity system because they are necessary
for accomplishing your goal, that is, to transform the condition of your teeth from
dirtiness to cleanliness.
Like other activity systems, a ritual has a group of activities united by a goal. The
goal is to accomplish some kind of a change, such as to make atonement (Lev 1:4).
A ritual activity system has smaller systems making up bigger systems. A burnt offering
included the activity of burning the flesh of an animal on the altar, which involved
skinning the animal, cutting it up, and putting the pieces on the altar fire (Lev 1:6-8).
Nonritual activities also have smaller systems embedded in larger systems. When I plan
properly for a long trip, I get my car ready by carrying out the following activity
systems: do a tune-up if necessary, change the oil, check other fluid levels, and put air
in the tires. Each of these systems has subsystems of activity within it. Changing the oil
involves removing the drain plug, replacing the filter, putting the drain plug back in,
pouring new oil into the engine, and cleaning up.
A ritual is a special kind of activity system in which the activities included and the
order in which they are performed are fixed. They must be done in the way God has
specified. For example, Leviticus 1 makes it clear that the burnt offering had to be a
certain kind of animal that was brought to the proper place and sacrificed according to a
Rituals are not the only kind of fixed activity systems. If you use an ATM machine to
withdraw money or if you access the Internet from a computer, you must go through a series
of specified steps in just the right order. If you make a mistake, your process will be
invalidated and you will have no choice but to start over again.
A ritual is a special kind of fixed activity system. It does not simply reach a
practical goal by natural laws of cause and effect as when you use an ATM machine. The
physical result of a burnt offering was to destroy a valuable, healthy animal. But this
was not the real goal of the ritual. The goal was to give a token offering to God and to
receive atonement/reconciliation with Him (Lev 1:4, 9).
A ritual reaches its goal because a kind of meaning is attached to its actions. The
meaning of a ritual is such that its actions are interpreted as interacting with someone
(such as a deity) or something (such as sin) to which we do not have access in the
material world. For example, although God is supernatural, not part of our physical
material world, He received burnt offerings from the Israelites.
Scott O'Grady's sister could not hug him when he was in Bosnia. She had no access to
him. But he was still in the world as a physical human being. So when he returned home,
she could reach out and touch him. But God is another matter. You can go to every nook and
cranny of our planet, but you will not find God in physical form unless He chooses to
appear that way.
One of the first Russian cosmonauts looked out of his space capsule into the starry
heavens and proclaimed that he did not see God; therefore there was no God. He failed to
grasp the fact that God is simply beyond the reach of human science (compare Job 11:7).
God can accept a gift of food (Lev 1:4, 9), but He does not visibly take it unless He
chooses to appear in human form (Gen 18:1-8) or sends fire to consume a sacrifice (Lev
9:24; 1 Ki 18:38).
A ritual can interact with something that is not physical, treating it as if it
were a physical substance. For example, on the Day of Atonement the Israelite high priest
was to do the following:
Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it
all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting
them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of
someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to
a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness (Lev 16:21-22).
Thus the high priest symbolically placed invisible sins upon a visible goat, which was
then taken out of the camp carrying the sins as if they were baggage (Lev 16:21-22).
Ritual connects the seen and unseen worlds!
Children, whose minds do not lock everything into fixed categories, seem to sense
connections between the seen and unseen worlds better than adults. When my daughter was
three years old, she watched me reaffirm my Australian roots by throwing a boomerang in
our large backyard in Michigan. With practice, I was able to make it circle around and
land at my feet. Intrigued, Sarah asked to try it. Her throw made the boomerang wobble and
land on the ground a few feet in front of her. She tried again with the same result.
Growing frustrated, she threw the boomerang up in the air. When it came down, she
exclaimed: "God didn't catch it!"
The next morning at breakfast I asked Sarah the meaning of her words. I was astounded
to learn that she thought the boomerang came back to me because God was catching it and
throwing it back to me. She thought I was interacting with the divine realm, playing catch
If Sarah had been right, I would have been engaging in the kind of interaction that
occurs in ritual. To use boomerang language, we could say that God did "catch"
the offerings of the Israelites and "throw back" blessings such as forgiveness.
Ritual is powerful. It can do things that ordinary words cannot do. Like language,
rituals communicate by means of symbols, but the power of ritual communication lies in the
fact that meanings are acted out.
If you doubt the power of ritual, remember the funeral of John F. Kennedy in November
of 1963. The president's young widow planned the ceremonies, which turned out to be one of
the great dramas of the twentieth century. Jacqueline Kennedy may have had her faults, but
she was supremely good at ritual. Who will ever forget the riderless horse, the wail of a
lone bagpipe, or the eternal flame? There was no need to explain these simple, elegant
symbols. Ritual is a motion picture that paints ten thousand words. The world understood.
And the world sobbed.
We have found that a ritual at the Israelite sanctuary was a special kind of activity
system. In looking at how rituals work, we started with the large category of activity
systems, narrowed our focus to fixed activity systems, and then narrowed once again to the
unique category of "ritual." The uniqueness of "ritual" lies in the
fact that only rituals are believed to interact with someone or something out of reach of
our physical, material world.
Although we are "shot down" in this world, we are not cut off from God. He
sends us messages and we can pray to Him. At the Israelite sanctuary, where God dwelt
among human beings, He provided intimate interaction. Through rituals, it was as though
the Israelites could reach out and touch Him. When Jesus came, people could touch
Him because He came without a "bubble" to isolate Him from our diseases and
sins. And our diseases and sins killed Him (Isa 53:3-5). But because He died, we can
someday see the unveiled face of God.