Building models of the biblical Sanctuary or Tabernacle, including the furniture it contained, made a lasting impression on me. I began reading scholarly commentaries by Jacob Milgrom and Roy Gane, which filled my mind with priestly mysteries and led me to think theologically about the meaning of it all. Many consider the Old Testament Sanctuary primitive and archaic—a discarded idea not worth incorporating into our lives. Forgotten is the Jesus who revealed Himself at Sinai. Christians rarely (if ever) learn about the ancient pattern, and they tend to dismiss it altogether. I find, however, that the theology embedded in God’s Sanctuary is truly beautiful, and I believe that we ought to understand God’s work from the perspective of His ultimate desire, intent, and aims for this world (Exodus 25:8). To envision this, we must reclaim the Sanctuary model.
We need to save God’s Sanctuary. Using Sanctuary sacrifices to promote the traditional doctrine of sin and salvation which requires God to punish sin and extend mercy only by punishing proxies in the stead of sinners has lost meaning for contemporary people. People need rescue and liberation from the damage sin causes to creation and human relationships. The solution that God’s Sanctuary presents not only removes the projected end of sin but heals and cleanses the damage caused by sin.
Christianity primarily focuses on personal salvation, not on how God rescues and secures the universe. God’s desire and work to bring union between Himself and humanity includes redeeming the entire cosmos, but in place of the message of God’s Sanctuary, we have constructed a courtroom theater of unnecessary tensions. Today’s prevailing paradigm reduces God’s saving work to a legal transaction focused on alleviating personal guilt and aimed at securing heaven. The Sanctuary, however, does not work within this transactional model. God is not an angry judge but a loving Father. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He was not annulling the Sanctuary as an outmoded or irrelevant system but reforming it by removing corruption and establishing what should have been all along. According to Isaiah 56, Jesus called the Temple a “house of prayer for all people.” Jesus loved His Father’s house, but He also saw the unfair transactions and those who believed that they must transact with God before they could approach Him.
Jesus brought an entirely new worship that was dramatically different from this perversion. He healed the lame and cured the blind—those who were unwhole and thus forbidden from entering the Temple grounds. Those healed eagerly followed Jesus into the Temple, rejoicing because they too could finally access God’s intimate Presence. What if there were a new way for people today to enter the Presence of God—one that conveys good news by demonstrating the proper use of ideas like substitution and atonement?
Jesus cleansed the Temple to correct a bad Sanctuary message, not do away with God’s message. I don’t think we as Christians have properly distinguished between the perverse and the true—whether between the offerings of Cain and Abel or between pagan temples and the Temple built according to God’s pattern. I think that because God’s method for conveying His eternal plan to forgive and heal is left unexplained, we have adopted some perversion by thinking we must transact with or appease God, essentially creating a solution to a non-existent problem. We have never truly assimilated the Sanctuary narrative, which presents God’s loving commitment to bring us into His Presence. What if God’s Sanctuary conveys a completely different message because it follows a different paradigm? What if God’s solution is to heal and restore humanity rather than punish it? What if God Himself is the Atoner, the Healer, and the Restorer? God’s goal is to transform us into people who can understand Him and recognize what He longs to do for us and for the world.
I believe God’s Sanctuary should be considered on its own terms and read closer to the central meaning God originally gave it (Exodus 25:8). The essential message isn’t gleaned by decoding its symbolic imagery but by understanding God’s incredible grace, through which He chose to dwell among human wretchedness to reveal to us His incredible love. We must see God’s desire for us more clearly. He desires to dwell with people, working in and through them, to give the world a glimpse of the more fulfilling life to come.
Have we ditched God’s Sanctuary in favor of modern theories that negate the value of its symbols? The Sanctuary model’s view of God is still relevant and full of grace. Perhaps the essential meaning God intended to convey through His Sanctuary has been inadequately clarified, preventing people from knowing Him better. We need to recapture its theology to properly understand God’s work. If we neglect to understand the Person behind these details and the narrative that accompanies it, our understanding of God’s deepest longing and desires for our world will be incomplete.
Jesus offered a new way to enter the Sanctuary that does not erase its lessons or overwrite them with a new theology. Jesus is the apex of the entire symbolic system, though in a way different from how you might imagine. To learn this difference is to penetrate the inner veil, recognizing God’s glories and the perfection that is to come. It is an altogether different transaction, resulting in a renewed people, a renewed earth, and a renewed cosmos.
Craig Ashton Jr.