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Questions On Doctrine


The Heavenly Sanctuary—Figurative or Literal Concepts



Relevant to the doctrine of the atonement, do Seventh-day Adventists believe that the sanctuary in heaven is literal, or figurative?


Before attempting to answer this question, it seems that there should be some understanding as to the meaning of the words "literal" and "figurative." If by the word "literal" it is thought that we conceive of a heavenly sanctuary made of brick and mortar, with all that we associate with such literalness in our everyday life, the answer is, We do not. If, on the other hand, in the use of the word "figurative" the thought conveyed is that of something unreal, mythical, imaginary, or visionary, the answer would again be, We do not conceive of the sanctuary in this sense.

We believe the following statements from Holy Writ: "We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man" (Heb. 8:1, 2). We understand from these scriptures that as the throne of God is real, and Jesus who sits there is real, the sanctuary or tabernacle in heaven would be just as real. As to its form, we know only what is revealed in


the Scriptures. We know nothing of what entered into its construction. This does not seem to be revealed, and we just let it rest there, without seeking to probe further into the question.

There are two considerations that should be of help in understanding this question. One is the fact that the tabernacle in the wilderness was built "according to the pattern." This is stressed in several places in the Bible. Moses was counseled by the Lord to make all things "after the pattern" (Ex. 25:9). He was reminded also that this "pattern" had been shown to him while he was in the mount with God: "And thou shalt rear up the tabernacle according to the fashion thereof which was shewed thee in the mount" (Ex. 26:30).

Moses himself did not plan this building. The instruction came directly from God. Moses was counseled to make the tabernacle "according to the fashion that he had seen" (Acts 7:44). The Greek word for "fashion" is tupos, and this is rendered variously by such words as "pattern," "form," "figure," et cetera. Some translators, such as Weymouth, render the thought "in imitation of the model which he had seen." In rendering Hebrews 9:24, Weymouth mentions that the earthly was "a mere copy of the reality." This "reality" was "the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man" (Heb. 8:2). The reality of the sanctuary in the heavens is certainly much more than implied.

One can hardly read such expressions as the above without coming to the conclusion that the sanctuary in the heavens, where Christ our great High Priest is, is just as real as He Himself is real. The language used, it seems to us, very definitely conveys that meaning.


Furthermore, the description by the prophet John in the Apocalypse is clear on this point. He is writing in language his hearers could quite well understand, for they were acquainted with the tabernacle ritual and all that was involved in its ministration on earth. He mentions the seven-branched candlestick, the "seven lamps of fire" (Rev. 4:5); the "golden altar" and the golden censer" (Rev. 8:3); the "tabernacle of the testimony in heaven" (Rev. 15:5); and even "the ark of his testament" (Rev. 11:19).

Hence, not only is the temple or sanctuary or tabernacle mentioned, but also that which was evidently necessary in its service of ministration—the candlestick, the golden altar, the censer, and the ark of His testament. Therefore, we believe there is a real sanctuary in heaven, where our blessed Lord ministers on our behalf.

And of still further consideration is the use of the word "shadow" in connection with the tabernacle, and later with the Temple, which figured so largely in the ceremonial services of Israel of old. The word "shadow" as used in the New Testament is found in Hebrews 8:5; 10:1. It is from the Greek skia, and in referring to this word, W. E. Vine, in Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, remarks:

The image or outline cast by an object, Col. 2:17, of ceremonies under the Law; of the Tabernacle and its appurtenances and offerings, Heb. 8:5; of these as appointed under the Law, Heb. 10:1.

Geerhardus Vos, late Professor of Biblical Theology in Princeton Theological Seminary, in his book, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1956), comments on the word "shadow":


In [Heb.] 8:5 we are told that the Jewish priests serve that which is a copy and a shadow (hupodeigma and skia). The author adds that it is a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. Thus it is not a shadow projected or thrown forward (into the future), but a shadow cast down from heaven to earth. Moreover, the particular use made by the author of the adjective true (alethinos) ought to be noted. Alethinos is a much stronger word than alethes which is the more common word for true. Alethinos means not simply the true, but the real, the genuine, the veritable.—Page 58.

Hence we may regard the earthly tabernacle as but the shadow of the reality; the real sanctuary was in heaven, but it cast its shadow on the earth. The earthly could be seen by men, but not the heavenly. We do, however, in this word "shadow" catch glimpses of what the heavenly sanctuary is like by looking at its shadow on the earth. It is in this sense that we believe there is a real sanctuary in heaven.

Certain aspects of this question are made plain for us in the Word of God: (1) Jesus is our great High Priest (Heb. 4:14); (2) Christ is "a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 5:6); (3) Jesus is a "minister of the sanctuary" (Heb. 8:2); (4) Jesus is our High Priest, who bids us "come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16); (5) because He is an all-sufficient Saviour, He has an unchangeable priesthood, and "he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:25); and (6) as our High Priest, it was necessary that He should "have somewhat also to offer" (Heb. 8:3)

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