Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary
Talking about Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary, the book of Hebrews says: “where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20, NKJV).
Scripture, especially the New Testament, is so clear about Christ’s role as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary—a role He took after He completed His work as our sacrifice here on earth (see Heb. 10:12).
This week we will explore the ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. His intercessory work is crucial to the preparation of His people to be ready for the end time. So, we have been given this crucial admonition: “The subject of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment should be clearly understood by the people of God. All need a knowledge for themselves of the position and work of their great High Priest. Otherwise it will be impossible for them to exercise the faith which is essential at this time or to occupy the position which God designs them to fill.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 488.
What is Christ doing for us in the heavenly sanctuary, and why is it so important for us to understand it, especially in the last days?
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, May 5.
Studying the supreme sacrifice of Christ does so much to prepare believers for the end time. Often humans look to the goal ahead of them, and that makes sense. But it is also good to realize that the goal is behind them. We speak of Calvary. The goal, reached here by Jesus for us, is irreversible and final, and it gives certainty to the goal ahead, as well.
God sent Christ to be a sin offering in order to condemn sin in the flesh. What does this mean? As an immortal Being, Christ could not die. Therefore, the Lord became a human, taking our mortality upon Himself so that He could die as our substitute.
Although divine, and although in nature God, Jesus took on “human likeness,” and He humbled Himself “by becoming obedient to death” on the cross (Phil. 2:6–8, NIV). In a way known only to God, the divinity of Christ did not die when Jesus died on the cross. In some way beyond human comprehension, the divinity of Jesus was quiescent during the nine months in the womb and in the days in the tomb, and Jesus never used it to aid His humanity during His life and ministry here.
Christ was born to die. We can imagine that there was never a moment in eternity when He was free from thoughts of the mocking, the flogging, and the heartbreaking crucifixion that He would face. This is unparalleled love, never witnessed before and not fully understood.
When John the Baptist called Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he was making an unmistakable reference to the sanctuary. Even more directly, he was making a reference to Christ’s death for sin as the one and only fulfillment of all the lambs (and every other sacrificial animal in the Hebrew sanctuary ritual) that had ever been slain as a sacrifice for sin. Indeed, the four Gospels, whatever else they teach, ultimately tell the story of what Jesus did in His role as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
But the story of Jesus and His work for our salvation does not end in the Gospels, even with His death and resurrection.
From the beginning, the book of Hebrews touches on the theme of Christ as the High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary after His work as the sacrificial Lamb. From the first mention of Him in this role after the Cross (Heb. 1:3), succeeding chapters in the book make reference to Jesus as High Priest. The depiction of His work in the heavenly sanctuary is developed fully in detail in Hebrews 7:1–28.
Although these verses are so deep, so rich, the essence of what they are saying is that Jesus Christ has a better priesthood than did the priests from the line of Aaron in the earthly sanctuary service. But now, instead of an earthly priesthood in an earthly sanctuary, we have a heavenly High Priest ministering for us in the sanctuary in heaven. So when we focus our eyes on Jesus, we can focus them on Him as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary.
Christ is able to save completely because of several qualifications that no other priest could ever have. He is God, who has authority to forgive sins. He has a permanent priesthood. During the Christian era, He is interceding all the time for His people with the same loving compassion as when He healed the sick and comforted the lonely on earth.
He is also human but was born sinless and remained that way. And, as the sinless One, He died under the staggering weight of the sum total of human sin. Only He, then, as the God-man, can intercede for sinners in heaven’s sanctuary.
What these texts show, too, is that Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all. It needed to happen only one time, and it was sufficient to bring salvation to every human being.
After all, considering who it was who died on the cross, how could such an offering not be sufficient for every human being?
Hebrews 9:12 says that Christ has “obtained eternal redemption” (NKJV). The Greek word translated as “redemption” also means “ransoming,” “releasing,” and “deliverance.” It’s the same word used in Luke 1:68, when Zacharias declares that God has “visited and redeemed His people” (NKJV). The reference to Christ’s blood—the blood of the only sufficient sacrifice—means that it was Christ, as the sacrificial Lamb, who obtained this redemption, this deliverance.
And the great news of the gospel is that Christ obtained this not for Himself but for us, and it becomes efficacious for all who accept Christ’s sacrifice for them.
Although sin brought a fearful separation between God and humanity, through Christ’s sacrificial death we as human beings are brought to God and can continue to have access to Him. See Eph. 2:18, 1 Pet. 3:18.
Jesus is the forerunner, having entered as our Representative into the heavenly sanctuary, even into the very presence of God for us. That is, Jesus is standing before the Father, ministering the merits of His atonement, the “eternal redemption” that He “obtained” in our behalf.
Yes, when we accepted Jesus our sins were forgiven, and we stood before God pardoned and cleansed. But the fact remains that even though we have become Christians, we at times still sin, despite all the wonderful promises of victory. In such cases, Jesus intercedes as our High Priest in heaven. He represents the repenting sinner, not pleading our merits (for we have none) but pleading His own on our behalf before the Father. “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25, NKJV).
The book of Hebrews teaches that the earthly Hebrew sanctuary service was a model of the heavenly sanctuary, the one that Christ entered and inaugurated as our High Priest. The earthly service, with its two apartments and its sacrificial and cleansing rituals, was “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle” (Heb. 8:5, NKJV).
And just as the earthly sanctuary ritual included a ministry in the two compartments, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, so also does Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. In the earthly sanctuary, the concept of judgment was represented on the Day of Atonement, which resulted in the cleansing of the sanctuary, as depicted in Leviticus 16. This was the one time a year when the High Priest entered into the second compartment, the Most Holy Place (Lev. 16:12–14), to do a work of cleansing and atonement on behalf of the people.
Scholars have been surprised by the statement that the heavenly sanctuary itself needed to be cleansed or “purified.” However, once this is understood as a Day of Atonement reference, the problem vanishes. Hebrews 9:23 shows that the work Christ does in the heavenly sanctuary is the true expression of what the earthly high priest did in the yearly Day of Atonement service in the Israelite sanctuary. The ministry of the earthly priest in cleansing the earthly sanctuary foreshadowed the work that Christ would do one day in the heavenly. The text does not say that this heavenly cleansing takes place immediately after Christ’s ascension. From the study of the book of Daniel, we can see that this phase of ministry began in the year 1844. So as Christians facing the last days, we need to understand the solemnity of the time that we are in but rest in the assurance of what Christ has done for us in the past and is doing for us now in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary.
Further Thought: The book of Hebrews points to the earthly sanctuary as the model, the type, of what Christ would do for us both on earth as our sacrifice and in heaven as our High Priest. The Israelite sanctuary was meant always to be an object lesson of the gospel. It was to teach the Jews the plan of salvation, which included sacrifice, intercession, judgment, and the final end of sin. The book of Daniel, meanwhile, adds more light in terms of helping readers to understand the apocalyptic (end time) dimension of Christ’s final work in the heavenly sanctuary. “With its emphasis on cleansing, judgment, and vindication, the apocalyptic visions of Daniel project the imagery of the Day of Atonement to the very end of earth’s history. The cleansing is connected directly to the heavenly sanctuary and to the work of the Messiah as king and priest. The visions introduce the time element, making it possible for the reader to identify a specific moment within salvation history when the Messiah would begin His work of final cleansing, judgment, and vindication in the heavenly dwelling of God.”—Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2000), p. 394.