The book of Hebrews makes it clear that a real sanctuary exists in heaven, and Jesus as High Priest ministers “in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Heb. 8:2, NASB). 1 However, in recent years, scholars have also highlighted Jesus’ declaration, in the Gospels, of He Himself being the New Temple.
How can these two ideas be reconciled?
This is a key question within New Testament scholarship generally; however, for Seventh-day Adventists, it takes on special significance. The understanding that Jesus Christ, as our High Priest, presently ministers in a real heavenly temple is important to our understanding of salvation and eschatology. To have balanced perspectives as Christians, we find it important to have an appropriate response to the question of whether Jesus is the temple, or whether Jesus is in the temple.
The new temple
Years ago, R. J. McKelvey wrote that the idea of “the new temple is the central idea of Jewish eschatology from its very beginning.” 2 During the Second Temple period, Jews looked for the coming of the new and glorious temple that would be filled with the glory of God. This eschatological temple came to be considered as “entirely new in character and supernatural in origin,” 3 and in this period, Messianic expectations converged with hope for the coming of the eschatological temple.
This interpretation of the temple has been seen by some scholars as being reflected across all of the Gospels, particularly in John. The prologue to John’s Gospel sets the scene. In verses 14–16, the “dwelling” of the Word among us echoes the dwelling of God among His people in the wilderness tabernacle. Now, however, the presence of God no longer resides in a tabernacle or temple, but instead in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, who manifests the glory of the Father.
Jesus specifically identifies Himself as the True Temple, which takes priority over the Jerusalem temple. In John 2:19, He declares, “ ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Similarly, in John 4, Jesus geographically uproots worship from the earthly spatial dimension and announces the coming of a worship that is “ ‘in spirit and truth’ ” (v. 23). These passages point to a Christological interpretation of worship and to Jesus Christ as the focal point of traffic between heaven and earth.
While this theme of Jesus as the New Temple is most prominent in the Gospel of John, evidence also resides in the rest of the New Testament. For example, in Matthew 12:6, Jesus refers to Himself as being “ ‘greater than the temple.’ ” The theme shows particular conspicuousness in Jesus’ final temple discourses. 4 When we come to the Pauline epistles, we see that Paul firmly takes up the notion of the body of Christ as the temple. He extensively develops the idea of the community in Christ being the temple, as he discusses in 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17 and 2 Corinthians 6:16–7:1.
The heavenly sanctuary
Until we come to the book of Hebrews, we find no explicit indication in the New Testament that the earthly temple may be replaced by a heavenly sanctuary, nor is the concept of a heavenly sanctuary explicitly present. 5 We find it entirely reasonable to maintain that the concept of the miqdash, with its inherent functions as the heavenly throne room of God and the place from which He dispenses His justice, is important throughout Scripture and implicit throughout the New Testament. This concept is, for example, evident in Matthew 5:34, 35 in which Jesus says, “ ‘Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool.’” However, the teaching of a heavenly sanctuary does not explicitly present itself throughout a significant portion of the New Testament.
We should also note that key scholars who advocate the perspective of Jesus as the New Temple have also raised significant questions themselves. While Scott Hahn, for example, notes the current scholarly consensus that “John is advancing what might be characterized as a ‘Temple christology,’ ” he also senses that something is amiss with this consensus: there must be more beyond because on this basis “since Christ is now ascended, our Temple must be gone.” 6 Brant Pitre also senses that something is missing, noting that we should “move beyond the obvious visible, political, and national significance of the Temple to its deeper theological and liturgical significance.” 7 If we see it only from the perspective of the national and cultural significance of the temple, then John’s Christology is indeed largely incomprehensible.
The key involves being able to reconcile the New Testament theme of Jesus as the New Temple with the understanding of a heavenly sanctuary in which Jesus ministers as our High Priest. In other words, can the perspectives of Hebrews and Revelation be reconciled with the rest of the New Testament on the question of the identity, nature, and location of the sanctuary? Is there real tension, or not?
Jesus and the temple in the book of Hebrews
The principle of the fundamental importance of the presence of God appears throughout the New Testament. For this reason, the emphasis of the book of Hebrews is so clearly on the Son, from beginning to end (Heb. 1:2, 3; 13:20). 8 The book of Hebrews has multiple exhortations that we must focus on Jesus. One of the key themes of the book concerns seeing Jesus and considering Him (see Heb. 2:9; 3:1; 12:3). The author has “much to say” about Jesus since it is Jesus upon whom we must look (Heb. 5:11; 12:2).
Naturally, a difference in perspective between the Gospel of John and the book of Hebrews shows itself. The focus of the Gospel of John is on Jesus’ presence on earth; the focus of the book of Hebrews, since Jesus has ascended to heaven, centers on Jesus’ presence in heaven. The scene is clearly set in Hebrews 1, in which we are told that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (v. 3). 9 After the prologue in the book of Hebrews, the emphasis throughout centers on the presence of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary, into which He has entered. 10
Indeed, in the following example from the book of Hebrews itself, the “physical” aspect of the heavenly sanctuary clearly refers to Christ: “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh” (Heb. 10:19, 20, NASB).
In this passage, the reference clearly centers on the heavenly sanctuary, specifically to the entrance through the veil. Here we see a physical aspect of the heavenly sanctuary that is, in effect, identified with the body of Christ Himself. This is entirely understandable within the discussion being pursued in the tenth chapter (Heb. 10:5–10), with its Messianic focus on the body of Christ. The construction tout estin (“that is”) is a common construction in the New Testament to exegete the Old Testament Scriptures. This is used in the same way elsewhere in the book of Hebrews11 and actually appears to be a strikingly Pauline phrase. We can see how Paul uses this phrase in passages such as Romans 9:7, 8; 10:6–8; and Galatians 3:16.
We tend to unfairly polarize our perspective when we insist either that because something appears to be real and literal it cannot be symbolic or that because something is symbolic it cannot be real. The heavenly sanctuary is therefore inappropriately spiritualized away by some, while others focus on its literality to the point of denying it any symbolic role. 12 An example that clearly illustrates the appropriateness of a more balanced stance includes the sanctuary in the wilderness, which was obviously both literal and symbolic. The heavenly sanctuary, even as the fulfillment of the earthly, should be similarly understood. The temple in Scripture always points us to Jesus and His ministry; the physical and structural real though they may be, are never an end in themselves.
A reasonable analogy is the way in which we understand a flag to be a symbol. 13 Its meaning is grounded in, yet goes beyond, its physical aspects. In this sense, a flag is both tangibly real and has immediate meaning in itself, yet it also points to deeper meanings that go beyond its physical elements. Similarly, if we merely limit the heavenly sanctuary to spatial-temporal realities as we understand them, we may then miss the breadth of the biblical teaching on this topic.
The ultimate focus of the way in which the New Testament presents the temple is not on the physical and literal aspects of the building and structure of the heavenly sanctuary, but rather on the person and atoning ministry of Jesus Christ within the sanctuary. From this perspective, every aspect of the heavenly sanctuary itself should be understood as also pointing to and focusing on Christ and His ministry. This, in effect, leaves no room for denying the reality of the heavenly sanctuary; its very reality directs us to focus on Christ and His ministry.
This discussion helps clarify a verse at the end of Revelation that has puzzled many. Referring to the New Jerusalem in the time after the 1,000 years, John writes in Revelation 21:22 that “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (NASB). John does not tell us here that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem. In fact, the force of the text stresses that there is a temple in the New Jerusalem, and the temple is the Lamb. In this way, Revelation 21:22 does not represent a radical break from what has existed before except in the clarity of its eschatological perspective and fulfillment. After sin has been eradicated, ultimate realities are manifested. The temple, as the New Testament consistently teaches, means the Lamb Himself.
No tension prevails within the New Testament with regard to the nature of the temple; the teaching of the New Testament remains consistent throughout. That there is a real heavenly sanctuary in a heavenly spatial-temporal sense comes through clearly from Hebrews and Revelation. However, the emphasis and priority of the New Testament is always on Christ and His ministry.
1 See also Heb. 9:24. Note that all biblical quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise indicated.
2 R. J. McKelvey, The New Temple: The Church in the New Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 22.
3 Ibid., 24. See also ibid., 22, 40.
4 See Matt. 23; Mark 12; 13; and Luke 20:17, 18.
5 However, note Exod. 25:9, where God says to Moses, “ ‘According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it’ ” (NASB). The fact that Moses was shown the pattern for the tabernacle in vision pointed him to the heavenly original. Therefore, the very existence of the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the temple, pointed the people to the reality of a heavenly sanctuary.
6 Scott W. Hahn, “Temple, Sign, and Sacrament: Towards a New Perspective on the Gospel of John,” in Temple and Contemplation: God’s Presence in the Cosmos, Church, and Human Heart, eds. Scott Hahn and David Scott, vol. 4, Letter and Spirit (Steubenville, OH: St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, 2008), 107.
7 Brant Pitre, “Jesus, the New Temple, and the New Priesthood,” in Temple and Contemplation: God’s Presence in the Cosmos, Church, and Human Heart, eds. Scott Hahn and David Scott, vol. 4, Letter and Spirit (Steubenville, OH: St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, 2008), 48.
8 See also Heb. 2:9; 3:1; 12:2, 3.
9 See also Heb. 10:12; 12:2.
10 See, e.g., Heb. 4:14; 6:19, 20; 8:1, 2; 9:11, 24.
11 See, e.g., Heb. 9:11.
12 In practice, the heavenly ministry of Jesus Christ and the role of the heavenly sanctuary itself are also often ignored or minimized in Christian preaching and teaching.
13 My thanks to Tom Shepherd of Andrews University for this insight.