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The Heavenly Temple (Fred Zaspel)

Among the many fruits of “Biblical Theology” in recent decades is the now common understanding of Eden as God’s earthly temple — a theme that traces through to the end of Revelation where this temple, so long removed and ruined by human sin, will in the end finally be restored in a redeemed cosmos. The metaphor is a bit mixed, for as this temple theme reaches its climax we are told that in the final state there will in fact be no (literal) temple, “for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). God’s purpose for creation will be achieved, and once again God will dwell with his people. Meanwhile, during this long period of interruption, God’s temple remains in heaven, being restored to earth progressively and in stages until that final day of glory.

The theme is a fascinating one, exciting throughout with implications that inform a biblical christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

But during this post-fall and pre-consummation period God’s dwelling remains in heaven, as the “God of Heaven” kind of expression so commonly reminds us. Occasionally the biblical writers give us a glimpse of this “heavenly temple” (cf. Is. 6; Rev. 7:15; 11:1, 2, 19; 14:15, 17; 16:1, 17). It is equipped with an altar (Rev. 6:9; 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7) and “the ark of his covenant” (Rev. 11:19), and consistently it is described in terms of supreme majesty. God resides in this heavenly temple. It is his palace, the place of his throne (Rev. 7:15, et al), from which he rules over all history, directing all heavenly and earthly things in accordance with his own purpose (e.g., Dan. 4:34-35; Rev. 4-5). The holy dwelling of God is secure in heaven, above all the vicissitudes of time.

The book of Hebrews addresses this “heavenly temple” theme also, and in a graphic way. The Old Testament tabernacle, the writer tells us, was only a “copy” of the “true temple” in heaven (8:2, 5; 9:1, 9, 11-12, 23, 24; 10:1), modeled after that heavenly reality. And the fascinating point he makes is that it was in this true, heavenly temple that Christ’s sacrifice was accepted. When the crucified, risen Christ ascended to heaven he did not enter a man-made tabernacle but the true temple of heaven itself (9:11-12, 24) — the real temple, not in a mere copy.

All those centuries of sacrifice were but shadows, symbols, offered in a “copied” tabernacle. They provided an extended object lesson, the structures and framework in which we might understand how sinners may be accepted before the holy God. Sacrifice was required. A substitute must be offered to bear the offerer’s sin. Only by removing the sin problem can we approach this God. But no animal and no man-made temple could ever suffice. All these could do is symbolize and foreshadow a reality beyond themselves — a reality, Hebrews tells us, brought about in Christ. This priest, having offered not the blood of bulls or goats but having offered his own blood (9:12-14, 26), entered the true temple, the very presence of God. And it was there his saving sacrifice was accepted on our behalf.

That is to say, our Lord’s work did not symbolize anything. He actually, once for all, “put away sin” (Heb. 9:26) having accomplished our eternal salvation (Heb. 9:12, 26).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reasons in this wonderful way: what could possibly lack in a sacrifice offered and accepted in the heavenly temple itself? If his work is accepted by God, what else could anyone require?

Here is the whole ground of our hope. No less than the Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest, has offered himself in sacrifice for our sins. He became our substitute, offered his own blood, bore the condemnation we deserved. And this offering God himself has accepted. And because the sacrifice of Jesus was accepted in heaven, we are accepted in heaven also.

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., by CouponDropDown” href=””>Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.


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