Sometimes reading Scripture can be tough but there are a few skills we can gain that provide a big return on investment in terms of helping us get a feel for how the whole thing fits together. Topping this list of skills is understanding the role of the sanctuary in the plot of the Biblical narrative.
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The Sanctuary in the Plot-structure of the Bible
At our local church here in Banská Bystrica we meet once a month to forge ourselves a path through the big story of Scripture. The goal is to get an idea how the story as a whole works so we can better understand how the parts fit into the whole. It’s a matter of gaining skill in reading Scripture. Along with following the plot-structure of the Bible (its movement from tension to resolution), we’re also following the sanctuary motif and its role in the plot. The sanctuary is the metaphor in Scripture that helps us understand God as king ruling over his creation but also Holy God in relationship with his people.
The Creation-Sanctuary in the Beginning
The sanctuary motif fits perfectly with the plot of Scripture. In the beginning, creation itself is a sanctuary where Adam and Eve live in the unmitigated presence of our Holy Creator God. They were without sin, in perfect fellowship with God and enjoying his blessing and protection (Gen 1). They were also given the task of maintaining that creation order (Gen 2) with all its implications for life in the presence of a Holy God and life with unlimited blessing and protection.
The Sanctuary and the Old Testament Temple After the Fall
Then comes the fall. Adam and Eve fail to maintain the creation order and God removes them from creation as a sanctuary. They no longer live in his presence and no longer enjoy unlimited blessing and protection. They are naked—exposed to the elements. The question, or the tension that drives the biblical narrative, is: Can we return to God’s creation sanctuary? Can we get back to God’s presence?
From Genesis 3 to Jesus we find in Scripture the temple-sanctuary with a sacrificial system. The Israelite temple is the place where God dwells among his people. They turn to the temple when they turn to God.
O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place.
1 Kings 8:28 – 30
(emphasis mine, see also 1 Kings 8:31, 33, 35, 38, 42 and 48)
Whereas Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God without any need for sacrifices in order to approach him, the Israelites can approach God only through the sacrificial system. This points to our need to be cleansed from our sins so we can fellowship with a Holy God.
Christ and Our Return to God’s Creation-Sanctuary
When Christ enters the biblical plot, he becomes the sacrificial lamb that cleanses us of our sins. As believers we are “in Christ” and “justified by faith” (Gal 3). That is, the righteousness of Christ covers our sins and we can once again live in fellowship with God. Jesus resolves the tension of the plot of Scripture because he is the “hero” that resolves the question, “Can we return to God’s creation sanctuary?”
This new state is beautifully described in sanctuary terms in Revelation 21–22. The new creation that John sees is a new heaven and earth. The old heaven and earth have passed away. The new creation is described in a way that points to a return to the creation state of affairs where all of creation is a sanctuary where God dwells with his people.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
But this new creation as a sanctuary is not like the temple we know in most of Scripture because there is no sacrificial system. We don’t need it because Christ is the lamb who provided the sacrifice once and for all.
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
The Sanctuary Motif
As you can see, the sanctuary motif follows the plot of the Bible. It’s there in the beginning to help us understand how we were created to interact with God through his creation. It’s there when things go bad because God reaches out to bring us back to himself through the sacrifice of Christ. It’s there in the end, when the tension of the biblical story is resolved and we are once again invited back into the presence of God.
When we know what the sanctuary-temple is and what it means in the plot of Scripture then we’re better able to understand books like Ezekiel where the temple plays a central role. We can also understand why Jesus puts himself in the place of the temple like we read in John 2. He is Emanuel–God’s presence with his people.
So yeah, reading Scripture can be tough but once we learn what temple means and how the creation-sanctuary motif develops throughout Scripture, we’ll gradually gain skill at seeing this motif at work in biblical texts. All of a sudden, reading Scripture starts getting fun and our lives oriented toward the story of Scripture.