I’ve met people who have a hard time making sense of all the complicated numbers found in the book Daniel and the prophetic timelines that detail God’s work. Calculating prophetic dates and timelines that span centuries to determine when God will preside over a cosmic judgment does not resonate with them. When descriptions of the Sanctuary (i.e., the Tabernacle) are used as exegesis or to mathematically prove a celestial geometry, the Sanctuary loses its relevance, becoming an object of boredom or even criticism. As for me, I am more excited by the themes of the Sanctuary than ever before because its heartbeat is God’s enduring and passionate commitment to dwell with humanity (Exodus 25:8). There is nothing boring or passé about that. Instead of calculating dates to prove various judgments, I prefer to emphasize hope and healing for a broken world, a profoundly relevant message across all generations that does not block the glorious rays of God’s love for the world.
The symbols of the Old Testament Sanctuary are almost always used to emphasize personal sin and guilt and the goal of being judged and saved for heaven. This approach has merit, but often overlooked is the communal journey through the Sanctuary and its decided relation to God’s work on earth to lead us to the most incredible future imaginable. If we are not careful, God’s Sanctuary can become a negative motivator when we expect to stand as objects of judgment before a strict Judge. This can create a lot to tension for people or even make the message seem like frightening news that should cause great distress. I think there is a richer and more relevant way to look at the Sanctuary: as representing all of redemptive history and answering relevant questions about what God is doing to bring a hurting world back to Him.
Using the Old Testament Sanctuary to discern God’s desires for the world is an appropriate activity. We don’t have to perform ancient rites or purity rituals like the Israelites did to access the theology of the Sanctuary. Scholars have shown that the Sanctuary structure represents a cosmic reality; it’s a microcosm of the universe that reveals what God intends for the world. Scholar Terrence E. Fretheim states that
this microcosm of creation is the beginning of a macrocosmic effort on God’s part. In and through this people, God is on the move to a new creation for all. God’s presence in the tabernacle is a statement about God’s intended presence in the entire world. The glory manifested there is to stream out into the larger world.God and World, 2010, p. 128
Modern people may not care to know the details of the celestial Sanctuary, but I think they do care about what God is doing on earth for all, and God’s heavenly Sanctuary has a decided relation to this activity. This perspective allows us to discuss the theology of the Sanctuary in a way that raises relevant questions about what God is doing. In this light, the Sanctuary becomes a fitting description of God’s work throughout history and shows His commitment to dwell with His people on earth. Given the parallel between the Sanctuary and creation and the fact that God had Moses model the Sanctuary after the heavenly pattern (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5), we can see that God anticipates the world becoming His Sanctuary, just as He originally intended.
Defining the Sanctuary as God’s redemptive work throughout history—from beginning to end—presents some fascinating possibilities to explore. We see that the Sanctuary layout includes three compartments or levels of holiness: (1) the outer courtyard, (2) the inner sanctuary (the holy place), and (3) the holy of holies (the most holy place). This threefold design horizontally delineates redemptive history. Exploring these three levels in relation to God’s communal work in the world, we can see that they represent the Israelite or Hebraic movement (court), the Apostolic movement (holy), and a final eschatological movement (most holy). This last level is where the glory of God’s presence resided and marks God’s final phase of redemption. It helps us understand how God’s glorious work will be consummated and the significant issues that are relevant to this time.
Theologically speaking, we are poised now in history at the final unveiling of God’s kingdom. That’s where we are now in the Sanctuary as redemptive history unfolds. I find it significant that the religious movements during the early to mid-nineteenth century aroused great interest in religious and spiritual matters, alerting the world to a final revelation (Jack Provoncha, A Remnant in Crisis, 1993 p. 135).
The mid-nineteenth century marked the beginning of something spectacular, but it seems that this movement was suspended. God seems to be waiting for a final people to become enlightened and willing to reflect the light of His love to a dark world. The most important theme of the most holy place is clearing God’s name, as this place presents a final community through which God fills the earth with the beautiful glory of His character. This involves telling the truth about God and having the world make its final decisions about Him—a final judgment bringing the world to an investigation of the truth about God. This is the message for our time. Just as the last Sanctuary compartment was filled with the radiant presence of God, the innermost chamber behind the veil anticipates a glorious world to come, which in theological terms, will be shaped just like the most holy place (Revelation 21:16–27).
I wish I had more time to write about God’s desires for the world He loves, which are illustrated by His wonderful Sanctuary, but I know that God longs for today’s world to give way to the glorious one to come. I think that He even waits with dissatisfaction, yearning for His glory to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
Craig Ashton Jr.