Christ's ministry in heaven

A Christocentric view of the twenty-third article of Seventh-day Adventist faith

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He has authored 17 books.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #23: "There is a sanctuary in heaven, the true tabernacle which the Lord set up and not man. In it Christ ministers on our behalf, making available to believers the benefits of His atoning sacrifice offered once for all on the cross. He was inaugurated as our great High Priest and began His intercessory ministry at the time of His ascension. In 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2,300 days, He entered the second and last phase of His atoning ministry. It is a work of investigative judgment which is part of the ultimate disposition of all sin, typified by the cleansing of the ancient Hebrew sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. In that typical service the sanctuary was cleansed with the blood of animal sacrifices, but the heavenly things are purified with the perfect sacrifice of the blood of Jesus. The investigative judgment reveals to heavenly intelligences who among the dead are asleep in Christ and therefore, in Him, are deemed worthy to have part in the first resurrection. It also makes manifest who, among the living are abiding in Christ, keeping the commandments of Cod and the faith of Jesus, and in Him, therefore, are ready for translation into His everlasting kingdom. This judgment vindicates the justice of Cod in saving those who believe in Jesus. It declares that those who have remained loyal to Cod shall receive the kingdom. The completion of this ministry of Christ will mark the dose of human probation before the Second Advent. (Heb. 8:1-5; 4:14-16; 9:11-28; 10:19-22; 1:3; 2:16, 17; Dan. 7:9-27; 8:13, 14; 9:24-27; Num. 14:34; Eze. 4:6; Lev. 16; Rev. 14:6, 7; 20:12; 14:12; 22:12.)"

From Exodus 25:8 to Revelation 11:19 Scripture is never far from the theme of the sanctuary and the verities implied in its symbolisms. From God's first commission, "Let them make Me a sanctuary," to John's final vision of the Most Holy Place in heaven, every thing in the story of salvation finds its soul in the Christocentric symbols of the sanctuary and the truths it teaches.

Look at how much of the first five books of the Bible are tied in directly, or indirectly, to the wilderness tabernacle.

See how much of Israel's Promised Land history, including the reigns of David and Solomon and the kings that fol lowed, is framed in the context of the Jerusalem temple. After the Babylonian exile, it's hard to miss the fact that the focus was upon the temple, upon rebuilding it and reinstating its worship there. From the Exodus onward, little Old Testament salvation history makes complete sense apart from the sanctuary service.

Even in the New Testament, the emphasis continues. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, a priest, in the temple and told him of the birth of John (Luke 1). John's cry, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), would be meaning less unless understood in the back ground and theology of the sanctuary.

Both in the beginning (John 2:12- 22) of His earthly ministry and at the end (Matt. 21:12), Jesus focused on the earthly sanctuary. He even referred to Himself as the Temple (John 2:22). His sacrificial death at the time of Passover (John 19:14), along with the way Paul equates His death with the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), can be understood only in terms of the sanctuary and its services, a point emphasized by the torn veil between the Holy and Most Holy Place at the time of Jesus' last earthly breath (Mark 15:38).

And then there's the book of Hebrews, which summarizes its first seven chapters like this: "Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: 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. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have some what also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount" (Heb. 8:1-5). Of the biblical books, Hebrews alone establishes the inseparable link between Jesus and the sanctuary.

Yet, along with Hebrews, recent scholarship has shown that the book of Revelation was structured around the sanctuary. "It's not an overstatement to conclude that the final book of the New Testament gathers all the major threads of Old Testament sanctuary typology and weaves them into an intricate and beautiful tapestry to form the backdrop for the entire book."1

So Seventh-day Adventists believe they're on solid biblical ground when it comes to "the sanctuary message."

The sanctuary and judgment

Of course, crucial to Seventh-day Adventist theology is the sanctuary message as it relates to eschatological judgment (Rev. 14:6, 7). This is the portion of Adventist sanctuary teaching that comes under the severest criticism, despite the biblical evidence affirmed by scholars in many denominations.

A quick survey of the many biblical texts regarding judgment reveals some sort of final judgment process near the end of time (Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 14:10-12; Dan. 7:24-27). This judgment is often directly associated with the Second Coming (Matt. 16:27; Rev.22:12). Among those judged are the followers of Christ (Matt. 7:21 -23; 22:1 - 1 3; 1 Peter 4:17; Heb. 10:30); a crucial element involved in this final reckoning is our relationship with Jesus as revealed through our works of obedience (Matt. 16:27; 25:31-46; Rom. 14:10-12; Eccles. 12:13, 14; Rev. 20:12).

In this judgment process only two outcomes are presented: the consequences for those who inherit the kingdom of Cod prepared for them "from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34) versus those who go into "everlasting punishment" (verse 46). The Bible also portrays a judgment prior to the execution of any sentence or projected outcome (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 22:1 -13; 25:31 -46; Rev. 22:12). This is a concept that carries legitimate weight. For after all, how can a sentence be carried out before a legitimate judgment has assessed a given case?

Peel away the rhetoric, and with the exception of some details, such as timing, many Christians believe in a judgment or judgments not very different from the one Seventh-day Adventists believe in.

Adventists, however, have framed the judgment in the context of the sanctuary, which is how it should be framed because the sanctuary teaches the judgment as part of the gospel the only way it should be taught.

Imagine if you were a jew living in ancient Israel during their 40 years in the wilderness. You would learn about the plan for your salvation from the sanctuary, where the gospel was presented to Israel in symbols and types. Now sup pose your understanding of that plan of salvation was limited only to the death of the animal. If nothing else were explained to you such as the ministry of the priests and the blood of the slain animals in the sanctuary would you not have a more limited understanding of the plan of salvation than someone who understood not only the death of the animal but the ministry in the tabernacle with that animal's blood, and particularly the special ministry on the Day of Atonement, the day of judgment?

Who would have a better grasp of salvation, the one whose focus, knowledge, and interest ended with the death of the animal (symbolic of the Cross), or the one whose understanding encompassed not only that, but the entire sanctuary ritual, starting with the death of the animals and culminating with the Day of Atonement? The answer is obvious.

In the same way, those whose understanding of the plan of salvation is limited only to the Cross, without all that happens afterward, including the judgment, have by the nature of things a limited view of what was accomplished on the cross. One cannot fully understand the death of the animal without understanding the service that followed it; in the same way, one can not fully understand the Cross without understanding the ministry that follows it, and that includes the judgment, as typified by the Day of Atonement ritual.

Was there any tension, much less contradiction, between the death of the animals (which symbolized the Cross) and the ministry of the high priest in the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement (which symbolized the judg ment, and its ultimate purpose)? Were these two actions the death of the sacrificial animal, and the ministry of the high priest in the Second Apartment of the sanctuary somehow opposed to one another or incongruous? Of course not. As two parts of the whole, both were crucial aspects of the same thing: the plan of salvation as a whole.

Thus, if someone's understanding of what happened with the death of the animal somehow was in tension or in contradiction with that person's under standing of the Second Apartment ministry, then that person misunderstood either the death of the animal, the ministry in the Second Apartment, or both.

All these actions, instituted by Cod, can not be in opposition to one another. If opposition or contradiction arises, the problem is not in the rituals but in a per son's understanding of those rituals.

Likewise, if a person's understanding of the Cross (symbolized by the death of the animal) is somehow in tension or in contradiction with their understanding of the pre-Advent judgment (symbolized by the Second Apartment ministry), then that person misunderstands either the Cross, the judgment, or both. These things, instituted by God, cannot be in opposition. If opposition or contradiction arises, the problem is not in either the Cross or the judgment but in a per son's misunderstanding of these events. Each typical event simply illustrates a different aspect of the whole.

The pre-Advent judgment and the gospel

That's why the pre-Advent judgment, the anti-typical day of atonement, must be unpacked against the back ground of the gospel, because that's what the sanctuary model typifies. On the typical Day of Atonement, the high priest never went into the Most Holy Place (symbolic of the judgment) with out blood, because it was the Day of Atonement, and only blood atones for sin. In Leviticus 16 the key element is blood. Therefore, it is this key element that is stressed repeatedly. After all, it is blood not law that cleanses from sin and that therefore makes atonement between human beings and Cod.

The truth is, however, that many Adventists when being taught the pre-Advent judgment, have been taken into the Most Holy Place without blood. This leads to confusion and serious spiritual struggle. In the typical sanctuary, even though the law was in the ark within the Most Holy Place and was a crucial part of the ministry of God in the life of Israel, the law condemns rather than pardons.

Atonement is about pardon, not condemnation. The law itself does not have any pardoning, atoning role; it has no power to save, no power to atone, no power to pardon, no power to enable people to obey any more than staring into a mirror can make an ugly face pretty. That is the role of the blood of the Sacrifice.

Thus, the message of the sanctuary is this: Christ and His righteousness, symbolized by the ceremonial blood shed on the Day of Atonement and in other sacrificial settings, is what gets us through the judgment. Without it, all of us would be lost, for none of us, no matter our works, have the quality of righteousness needed to stand before a holy God.

The sanctuary services teach us that unless we are clothed in a perfect righteousness that none of us ourselves possess or could ever earn (no matter how sincerely we try, even through the imparted power of the Holy Spirit), we would have to stand in our own works, our own righteousness something that would never pass God's all-seeing eye.

At the center of the message of the pre-Advent judgment, which Adventists believe began in 1844 (on the basis of a careful interpretation of sanctuary related passages such as Daniel 8:14) is that no one needs to stand in his or her own righteousness. We can stand in the righteousness of Jesus. This righteous ness covers us the moment we, through surrender of ourselves to Christ, claim it for ourselves. It stays with us (though not unconditionally) right through the judgment. "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1). No condemnation, not now, and certainly not in the judgment. After all, what good would being covered by that righteousness do any us if we did not possess it when we needed it most?

The parable of the wedding garment

Perhaps the clearest example of Christ's righteousness covering us in judgment comes from the parable of the wedding feast. After those who were first called rejected the invitation, the servants went out into the highways, and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.

"And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how earnest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 22:11-13).

What determined whether the man was allowed to stay at the feast, or had to leave? The garment that the owner gave to the guests (a custom in that time and place). The offending guest came to the wedding, but he rejected what was offered him. What is that garment, other than the righteousness of Christ? "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels" (Isa. 61:10, emphasis supplied). The guest, heeding the invitation but not the essential condition of that invitation, refused what the owner offered him.

It is important to note that the parable says that both good and the bad came to the feast. It doesn't classify the man without the garment as good or bad, that is, in and of himself. In one sense, in His parable, Jesus draws no qualitative distinction between those who come to the wedding feast: The only demarcating factor at the wedding feast, and thus before God in judgment, is whether or not we come dressed in the garment supplied for the occasion. What the guest needed at the wedding is the same thing we need in the judgment: something covering us. Otherwise we will be cast out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That covering, symbolized by the garment in the para ble, is the righteousness of Jesus, credited to His followers by faith, and it is their only hope in the judgment.

Judgment and works

No one, though, who takes the Bible seriously can avoid the central teaching of a judgment that is set on the basis of works. Any attempt to understand the judgment without works denies a prime biblical teaching. Yet a crucial distinction must be made: Being judged by works doesn't mean being saved by them, a fact that many easily misunderstand.

How does this work? A professed follower's life comes up before God in judgment: every work, every secret thing, every idle word, comes into review (Matt. 12:36; Eccles. 3:17; 12:14; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10-12; Ps. 135:14; Heb. 10:30). Before such a scrutiny who could stand? No one (Rom. 3:10, 23; Gal. 3:22; 1 Tim. 1:15).

However, for the true followers of Christ, Jesus stands as their Advocate, their Representative, their Intercessor in heaven (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 6:20; 7:25; 9:24; 1 John 2:1). And though they have nothing in and of themselves to give them merit before God, though they have no works that are good enough to justify them before the Lord, their lives however faulty, however defective nevertheless reveal true repentance,obedience, loyalty, and faith (James 2:14-20; 1 John 4:20; 5:3; John 14:15; Matt. 7:24-27). How they have treated others, the poor, the needy, those in prison; how they forgave as they were forgiven; the words they spoke, the deeds they did, their obedience (Matt. 7:2; 12:36, 37; 18:23-35; 25:31-46)

While these things could never justify them before God, while they could never answer the demands of a broken law, they reveal those who have accepted Christ as their Substitute and His righteousness alone, which covers them like a garment, gets them through the judgment (1 John 2:1; Matt. 22:1-14; Zech. 3:1-5; Lev. 16; Rom. 8:1, 34; Heb.9:24).

"But how do I know," someone might ask, "if I will have the quality and quantity of works that will actually reveal that I have saving faith?" However logical, that's a wrongly premised question. It reflects the atti tude of those who said, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?" (Matt. 7:22), or of the Pharisee, who said, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publi can. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11, 12).

Instead, consistent with the assumption and the biblical assessment that we do not have sufficient good work to pre sent to God now or in any eschatological judgment, we must lean only on the merits of Jesus, who died for our sins and whose perfect life and works are credited to us by faith. He is our only hope of salvation, now and in the judgment.

It is as Ellen White expressed it: "But while we should realize our sinful condition, we are to rely upon Christ as our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. We cannot answer the charges of Satan against us. Christ alone can make an effectual plea in our behalf. He is able to silence the accuser with arguments founded not upon our merits, but on His own."2 The futility of looking at our works as a reason for God to save us should cause us instead to lean totally on the mercy and merits of Christ. Then, out of love and thankfulness for the assurance of salvation that's ours through Christ, we serve Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and body, a service that's expressed in works. How else could it be?

The judgment, then, is simply the opportunity for a climactic application of the gospel to be made in our lives. It's Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, consummated in our behalf. The judgment apart from the gospel is like Leviticus 16 without blood: All it leads to is death, an obviously wrong denouement.


In one of his most famous poems, Alexander Pope wrote: "So man, who here seems principle alone, Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown, Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal; 'Tis but a pan we see, and not a whole. "3 It's true, we do see only a part, and hot the whole. But, on the backdrop of the sanctuary, a model of the plan of salvation, God has revealed to us the great est part of the whole: Jesus Christ's death and high priestly ministry in heaven in our behalf. And, for us sinners needing grace, now and in the pre-Advent judgment this partial revelation is more than enough, at least for the moment: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12).

1 Dick Davidson, "Sanctuary Typology/' in I rank Holbrook, ed., Symposium on Revelation—Book One (Silver Spring, Md
Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1992), 126.

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub, Assn , 1948), 5:471.

3 Alexander Pope, Essay on Man ami Other Poems (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), 47.



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Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He has authored 17 books.

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