Beale: Reflections on the Book of Hebrews

“We [see] in Hebrews that the heavenly sanctuary is called the ‘true tabernacle’ because the earthly one was only a ‘copy and shadow of the heavenly’ one (8:5a). Verse 5b confirms this: ‘just as Moses is warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle: for, “See…that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain”’. The pattern seen by Moses on Sinai was a copy of the true heavenly tabernacle that was to appear at the end of history.It was this eschatological sanctuary of which Moses was to make a small earthly model. This was the ‘true tabernacle’ because it was the ‘genuine article’, the ‘literal’ and real one. In contrast, the earthly tent was but ‘a copy and shadow’ or figurative portrayal of the literal heavenly one (so also Heb.9:24), ‘the greater and more perfect tabernacle’ (Heb.9:11).

Some Christian interpreters maintain that what is literal can be only physical and what is non-literal is non-physical. The book of Hebrews, however, gives an opposite definition: the ‘figurative sanctuary’ is the earthly one, and the ‘literal’ sanctuary the heavenly one.

Part of the reason for this lies in the meaning of ‘true’ (alethinos). The reference to the tabernacle as ‘true’ in Hebrews 8:2 and 9:24 connotes both (1) that which is ‘genuine’ or represents ‘the real state of affairs’ and (2) prophetic fulfilment.

One of the best illustrations of such usage occurs in Revelation 3:14, where Christ calls himself the ‘faithful and true witness’. This means that he is the ‘perfect substance and model’ of everything that imperfect witnesses in the Old Testament should have been but failed to be, yet who were still a foreshadowing of Christ. The word ‘true’ in the Old Testament refers to that which really exists and corresponds to reality (1 Sam. 9:6; 15:17; 1 Kgs. 10:6; 2 Chr. 9:5) and ‘false’ describes the opposite. Typically, a false witness or prophet does not speak that which corresponds to reality, whereas the true witness and prophet does (e.g., Num. 11:23; Deut. 13:2, 14; 17:4; 18:22).

Likewise, Hebrews refers to the heavenly tabernacle as ‘true’ because it is the fulfilment not only of direct prophecies of the eschatological temple but of everything the imperfect and temporary Old Testament tabernacle and temples foreshadowed. All of these physical temples were intended to be but models and copies of the coming true, eternal temple (see again Heb. 8:5). That consummate temple cannot be changed nor can it ever pass away, because it is not made by imperfect human hands but by God’s hand, as a new creation. Thus, we may say that the eschatological temple is ‘true’ not only in the sense of fulfilment but in that it will remain a reality for ever.

The former temple was not the ‘true one’, not only because it was a mere shadow of the one to come but also because it would cease to exist. A further reason for the eternal existence of the new temple in the new creation is that it will exist in the midst of God’s unfettered presence, whereas God’s special presence in the old cosmos was cordoned off in a back room of the old temple. To believe that a physical temple will be built after the eschatological one has been inaugurated would be to return to the ‘shadowy’ stage of temple existence. Once the end-time, eternal temple that corresponds to the reality of the heavenly one comes, it would be bizarre for God to commend a return to the shadows.

To see Christ and the church as the true end-time temple is neither an allegorical spiritualization of the Old Testament temple nor of prophecies of an eschatological temple, but is an identification of the temple’s real meaning. While it is true that Christ fulfils what the temple stands for, it is better to say, ‘Christ is the meaning for which the temple existed’ (E. P. Clowney, The Final Temple, Westminster Theological Journal 35, 1972, 177). This is well expressed by Jesus himself when he says, ‘something greater than the temple is here’ (Matt.12:6).

Another reason why Hebrews says the literal temple is not the physical but the heavenly one is because God’s luminous presence could only be imperfectly expressed there, as it was a human-made building. This, as we have seen, is part of Stephen’s point in Acts 7:48–49: ‘the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is My throne,and the earth is the footstool of My feet;/What kind of house will you build for Me?” says the Lord;/“Or what place is there for My repose?/Was it not My hand which made all these things?” ’

-G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 2004, 373-375.

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