The Cleansing of the True Tabernacle

Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (January-March 1995): 60-71

The Cleansing of the True Tabernacle
David J. MacLeod

At His ascension Jesus Christ entered heaven and took His seat at the right hand of God (Heb. 8:1; 9:24). He serves there today as a Minister in the sanctuary, that is, in the true tabernacle, the holy of holies in heaven itself. The purpose of this article is to address two interpretive problems in reference to His present ministry. How have scholars understood the perspective of the author of Hebrews in describing the true tabernacle? What is the meaning of the true tabernacle being cleansed by sacrificial blood?

The Typology of the True Tabernacle

In Hebrews 8:5 the author of this epistle wrote of the earthly tabernacle as a ’preliminary sketch’ (uJpovdeigma) and ’foreshadowing’ (skiav; cf. 10:1) of the heavenly things. This preliminary sketch, he wrote, was constructed by Moses on the basis of his vision of future things (’the pattern,’ tuvpo’). Likewise Hebrews 9:23 refers to the tabernacle, its furnishings, and sacrifices as sketches, patterns, or blueprints (taV uJpodeivgmata) of the things in the heavens. Also Hebrews 9:24 speaks of the Old Testament holy of holies (a{gia) as a ’prefiguration [ajntivtupa] of the true one . . . [in] heaven itself.’

The Platonic Interpretation

The concept of the true tabernacle presented by the author of Hebrews has sometimes been interpreted as if he were a Platonist. According to this interpretation the author had been influenced by the Platonic philosophy of Philo (20 B.C.-A.D. 50) in which the phenomenal world of the senses is but a copy of the original in the world of ideas. Understood in this way the author’s conceptual mode is vertical-Platonic, that is, the earthly tabernacle was a copy (uJpovdeigma) and shadow of the eternal tabernacle in the ideal world. Moses built the tabernacle according to the Platonic archetype (tuvpo’) he saw on the mountain (Heb. 8:5). The tabernacle with its sacrifices and furnishings were but copies (taV uJpodeivgmata) of the true tabernacle Christ has entered (9:23-24). This interpretation is contrary to the eschatological perspective of the author. His conceptual mode was horizontal-eschatological, not vertical-Platonic. In Hebrews the contrast in sanctuaries is temporal. It is not a contrast between an earthly copy and a heavenly archetype, but ’between an historical situation in the past [earthly tabernacle] and one which succeeded it in time’ [true tabernacle in heaven inaugurated at the death of Christ]. The true tabernacle does not cast its outline and shadow beneath it (the Platonic model);rather, that future entity casts its outline and shadow ahead of it or before it in time (the eschatological model). The outline and shadow appear first (Old Testament tabernacle) and then the fulfillment (true tabernacle in heaven). Moses’ tabernacle was a blueprint or prototype of the true tabernacle to come. It should be added that the author’s concept is not Platonic, because Plato’s ideal world was not a place that could be entered as Jesus entered the heavenly holy of holies. Plato’s ideal world could be entered only by the intellect.

The Typological Interpretation

The perspective of the author, then, is typological. The earthly tabernacle, its sacrifices, and its furnishings were symbolic anticipations of something to come in the future. The earthly holy of holies was an Old Testament type, that is, a prefigurement of the true, authentic, and perfect one into which Christ has entered.

Central to the author’s thought, of course, is not the heavenly sanctuary itself but the finished sacrificial act connected with it. The Old Testament tabernacle worship prefigured the new high priestly act of Christ in which He offered Himself as a sacrifice and entered the heavenly holy of holies for His people.

Views on the Cleansing of the True Tabernacle

Just as the earthly tabernacle and its worship paraphernalia (8:5) were cleansed by sacrificial blood, so ’the heavenly things’ (i.e., the sanctuary above) needed to be cleansed, but with a better sacrifice (Heb. 9:23). The author’s statement is a crux interpretum in that students of the epistle have wondered how it is that the true tabernacle--where God is (9:24)--needed to be cleansed. At least nine answers to this question have been advanced.

View One: The Cleansing of Sins in Heaven

Buchanan was of the opinion that the author of Hebrews assumed there would be sinning in heaven and that these sins would be cleansed by sacrifices offered by Christ in heaven. However, Hebrews strongly affirms that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice makes all further sacrifices for sin unnecessary (cf. 7:27; 9:28). In addition the apostles taught that the believer’s heavenly life would be one of glorification and the absence of sin (Rom. 8:30; Rev. 21:27; 22:14-15).

View Two: The Investigation of Sins in Heaven

According to Seventh-day Adventist scholars the Old Testament ritual on the Day of Atonement was typical of a work that Christ would undertake at the close of the present age. They assert that in 1844 He entered the heavenly sanctuary and began an ’investigative judgment’ of the record of His people’s sins. At the end of the age this process will end, and Christ will ’cleanse the heavenly sanctuary, removing the confessed and forgiven sins of His people thence, and placing them upon Satan.’ The devil will be declared guilty of these sins and will bear the penalty for them as did the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement.Contrary to this view, the author of Hebrews wrote that Christ had already entered the heavenly holy of holies (9:12, 24). Furthermore, he suggests that the inauguration of the heavenly sanctuary and the provision for cleansing (both initial and ongoing) took place when Christ’s blood was shed, according to the pattern of Old Testament sacrifices (9:23-24). In other words the cleansing mentioned in 9:23 was not something yet future. Also Hebrews, a primary source of the church’s knowledge of Christ’s present work, says nothing of an ’investigative judgment.’

View Three: A Poetic Parallel to the Earthly Tabernacle

Turning to more orthodox solutions, one finds the view of A. B. Bruce and others that the author was compelled by analogy to make a poetic parallel to the cleansing of the earthly tabernacle (9:21, 23). In this view the statement in 9:23 is more poetry than theology and reveals simply that glory accrued even to heaven by the entrance of Christ. Such a view fails to appreciate the author’s use of Old Testament types. As Bruce wrote, ’Whenever there is a shadow there must be a body that casts it.’ The author infers a typical correspondence between verses 21 and 23, so that in some sense the ’heavenly things’ needed cleansing.

View Four: The Cleansing of Wrath from Heaven

Delitzsch and others explained that the heavenly tabernacle needed cleansing in that God’s love ’had been overclouded and bedarkened by a fire of wrath.’ Because of sin the tabernacle was not approachable by man. Delitzsch was correct in asserting that God’s wrath had to be satisfied, but he was wrong in seemingly making God’s love and wrath mutually exclusive. In fact holy wrath and love met at the Cross. Furthermore man’s defilement, not that of heaven, makes heaven unapproachable.

View Five: The Cleansing of believers as god’s habitation

Other writers have noted that believers are spoken of in the New Testament as the habitation of God (Eph. 2:22; 1 Pet. 2:5). To be such a spiritual house their hearts and consciences needed to be cleansed. While it is true that the author of Hebrews viewed God’s people as His ’house’ (Heb. 3:6) and affirmed that their consciences have been cleansed (9:14), this does not seem to be his point in this context. Rather he is here speaking of a cleansing of ’the heavenly things,’ that is, ’heaven itself’ (9:23-24). He did not seem to make an identification between the true tabernacle in heaven and the community of the redeemed.

View Six: The Cleansing of the Cosmos

Still others have noted that man is bound up with the whole created order in such a way that the consequences of the Fall have extended to all creation (Gen. 3:17-19; Isa. 24:5-6; Jer. 23:10; Rom. 8:18-20). These writers see in Hebrews 9:23 an allusion to the ultimate effect of the Cross, namely, a renewed universe cleansed from sin and filled with righteousness (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; Heb. 12:28; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-3). While it is true to New Testament teaching to say that Christ’s work will ultimately (eschatologically) have a reconciling influence throughout the universe (Col. 1:20), the immediate context in Hebrews (cf. 9:24, nu’n, ’now’) seems to be concerned with the present benefits of the Cross to believers.

View Seven: The Dismissal of Satan from Heaven

A number of interpreters have expressed the opinion that the cleansing of the heavenly things took place at the defeat of Satan (Heb. 2:14) when all defilement (Job 15:15; 25:5) was removed from heaven. Claiming that Satan first sinned in heaven (Isa. 14:12; Ezek. 28:14-15), they correctly note a strand of teaching in the New Testament to the effect that Satan’s realm of operations is ’in the heavenly places’ (ejn toi’’ ejpouranivoi’, Eph. 6:12), which teaching suggests that wickedness extends beyond this earth. At His death and ascension Christ vindicated His lordship over Satan and rid heaven of his defiling presence. Only then could the true tabernacle in heaven be a suitable meeting place between God and man. If this view is correct, there may also be a note of assurance to the readers that no evil spirit can bar their access to God (Rom. 8:38). Hebrews 2:14 agrees with other New Testament verses (e.g., Col. 2:15; 1 John 3:8) that the Cross effected a judgment in the world of malevolent angels. It is also evident from Hebrews 1 and 2 that the original readers were interested in angels and their mediatorial role. Though this interpretation deserves careful consideration, it must be rejected. The argument of Hebrews 9:14-28 deals with Christ’s provision for human defilement. Had the author wanted to introduce Satan at this point, he surely would not have been so obscure.

View Eight: The Inauguration of the Heavenly Tabernacle

Several have noted that kaqarivzesqai (’to be cleansed’) does not occur in the second clause of 9:23. They argue that the verse contains a zeugma and that another verb should be supplied for the second clause, namely, ejgkainivzein (’to inaugurate, dedicate’) from verse 18. The first covenant and its tabernacle were inaugurated with blood (9:18, 21), and the New Covenant and its heavenly tabernacle were also inaugurated with blood. As attractive as this proposal is, it does not solve the problem, for a dedication by means of sacrificial blood would still involve the notion of cleansing and atonement. Furthermore the mevn . . . dev construction in 9:23 would seem to imply that the same verb, kaqarivzesqai, goes with both subjects. In other words Hebrews 9:23 seems to say that the ’heavenly things’ needed cleansing.

View Nine: The Cleansing of the Sphere of Communion

The view with the fewest problems is a variation of view eight. In 9:18-20 the author wrote of the inauguration of both the old and the new covenants with blood. He added that the sanctuaries connected with those covenants were also inaugurated with blood (vv. 21-23). Yet the author’s terminology (kaqarivzesqai, ’to be cleansed’) clearly indicates he was referring to more than a dedication ceremony. The inauguration of the covenants involved a cleansing of the sanctuaries. Like the earthly tabernacle, the heavenly tabernacle was cleansed with blood. Proponents of this view explain that the author was speaking relationally and not locally. He was using the language of ritual geography, not physical or local geography. Just as the Old Testament tabernacle was the meeting place between God and man, so the true tabernacle in heaven is the meeting place between God and man. And just as the approach of sinful worshipers to the Old Testament tabernacle defiled it (Lev. 16:16), so the approach of sinful worshipers today defiles the true tabernacle. Christians today, like the Old Testament believers, are pilgrims. Not yet glorified, they are encouraged to approach God through their High Priest for forgiveness and help (Heb. 4:15-16; 9:24; 10:19-22). The implication of 9:23 is that the ’heavenly things’ are defiled by this constant process of forgiving believers who sin. The author’s language should not, of course, be pressed to mean that the heavenly sanctuary is literally defiled. He was not thinking so much of a place as he was of relationships. He was saying that not only the people (9:14), but also ’the sphere and all means of their relations to God, and all these relations themselves must be sanctified by the blood of the new covenant.’ On the basis of the death of Christ ’the very presence of God becomes the meeting place between Him and the believer.’ The lesson of 9:23, then, is that just as sacrifices were necessary to make atonement in the Old Testament, so Christ accomplished a ’definitive’ sacrifice (’a final and complete atonement’ ) to provide access into the presence of God by His worshipers.


In Hebrews 9 the author contrasted Old Testament worship (vv. 1-10) with Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (vv. 11-22). The purpose of this contrast is to show that the New Covenant ministry insures believers access into the presence of God while the Old Covenant did not. In his argument he established the temporary and provisional status of the Levitical worship. The Old Testament tabernacle was but a type, a prophetic prefiguring of Christ’s heavenly sanctuary. The argument, then, establishes the superiority of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 9:23 he made the startling assertion that just as the earthly pattern or blueprint was cleansed with blood, so the heavenly counterpart had to be cleansed. At least nine explanations of the author’s statement have been proposed. The view that poses the fewest problems and best fits the author’s argument is the one that understands the true tabernacle to be a meeting place--a sphere of communion--between God and man. The sacrifice of Christ opened up a way of access to God’s presence and keeps it open. As sinful pilgrims on their way to the heavenly city, God’s people defile all they touch, even their ’meeting place’ with God, and they need the constant efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ their High Priest to remove that defilement.

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