y friend Emily’s brow furrowed slightly as she glanced my way. Having studied the Bible with her for several months, I intuited her confusion. She can’t comprehend what the pastor is saying, I thought. He’s using too many “code” words, and the concepts are too abstract for her. The subject matter of the sermon we were listening to was the final atonement as it related to the marriage supper of the Lamb—not the stuff of sermon fluff. I truly appreciated the speaker’s willingness to tackle the big topics, and his message was backed by solid conviction, but for all his virtue, his words were not getting through.
Em was a classic “postmodern” with all the trappings: She cast off the notion of objective truth and peered at religion through an eye deeply jaundiced, yet ironically she longed for purpose, meaning, and community. The result was a contradictory mix of openness and skepticism, classic to today’s “seeker” profile. Coaxing Emily into the church service had been no easy task, and it was with an admitted sense of mother-hen pride that I finally sat next to her in a pew.
What’s So Ironic?
The story of our meeting is a bit anomalous. She had come to me, all wide-eyed and frantic, wanting to understand the book of Daniel. “I saw the movie The Matrix,” she offered, “and I think there’s some kind of mystical connection between that movie and Daniel the prophet!” I stifled my impulse to naysay, and the two of us began several weeks of studies, with Emily receiving the early lessons like a baby bird with gaping beak. She loved the tales of vegetarian teenagers, forgotten dreams with cosmic implications, and hungry lions hushed to kittens by the angels of God.1 I moved her cautiously into the prophecies of Daniel 7, 8, and 9. The birdie’s beak was still wide open enough to receive the parallel prophecies of the four beasts,2 the ram and the goat, and the little horn,3 and to make the acquaintance of Belshazzar, Gabriel, and Constantine. Truth built upon truth until we found ourselves hammering out the 2300-day prophecy math on a piece of scrap paper.4 Emily and I even dialoged on the Great Disappointment and the beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in 1844.5
Now she sat in the pew next to me, gaining her first exposure to Adventist Church life. “Today, Christ is engaged in the great work of the investigative judgment during this antitypical day of atonement,”6
the speaker proclaimed, “and soon the marriage supper of the Lamb will take place.”7
Knowing that her appetite for depth was not matched by a grasp of church-speak, I leaned toward Emily and whispered a translation: “Em, what the pastor is saying is that Christ is the husband and His church is the bride. A bride and groom can’t be truly intimate when there’s something between them. The sanctuary in heaven is where Jesus cleanses away the sin that separates Him from His bride.”8 Emily relaxed her brow and nodded in agreement.
That wasn’t the only time the sanctuary doctrine answered Emily’s questions. And this is what I find so ironic: Adventism is increasingly intrigued with reaching the secular, postmodern world. At the same time, some are increasingly embarrassed by the supposed “irrelevancy” of the sanctuary truth, not realizing that this truth is the very tool we grope for. The sanctuary message is anything but irrelevant if presented in an absorbable form. In fact, it is just the amplification our message needs to be heard above today’s howling winds of doctrine. To an increasingly gospel-hardened postmodern world, the sanctuary trashes evil and treasures good in several ways that resonate with today’s seekers.
Christians and secularists alike disdain the hypocrisy of professed followers of Jesus. Statistics illustrate the duplicity of some in Christendom. Sources from within the Christian community report that sexual infidelity, racism, greed, and divorce are as rampant as in the mainstream.9 Moral corruption is at times deflected through denouncement of the very sins being masked.10 To conscientious unbelievers, Christian liberty appears as license. Emily wanted to know why religion made such hypocrites out of people. “They do these sick things,” she said, “and then claim the blood of Jesus so they can go on doing it!”
The sanctuary spoke resolve into her dissonance, because it held the feet of professed Christians to the very fire they were calling down on others’ heads. This truth says that professed believers will be judged by an all-seeing God, and ultimately either validated as sincere or exposed as phonies.11 This “scrutinizing of the saints” has been the most offending element of the sanctuary truth, but for those looking in from the outside, it provides a welcome reprieve from prevailing cheap grace. God is seen not as a doting sugar daddy playing favorites but as a loving Father governing all His children equitably.
“There’s so much injustice in the world!” Emily complained. “And it seems as if God doesn’t care.” Yet the sanctuary told her otherwise, because there the most whitewashed sins are recorded with searing clarity. What is done in the darkness is seen and chronicled in the books of heaven to stand as objective testimony in heaven’s court. This tells those whose sense of justice is offended by man’s inhumanity to man that the Judge of the world can’t be bought off by
The poor man who trembles under the tyranny of the rich, the minority legally or socially enslaved by the powerful, the babies aborted for the sake of mindless pleasure, and the women forced to use their bodies as merchandise are seen and valued by a God who is no respecter of persons. The circumstances of life seem to say that their torment goes unnoticed by Him. The sanctuary says otherwise.
The Sanctuary Treasures the Little Guy
As the world’s population increases, the peoples of the earth are migrating into the cities.12 With the teeming of the masses there is a decreased sense of personal significance. “Who am I, and what do I matter in the midst of these millions?” the Emilys of the world ask. The sanctuary doctrine reveals that we are significant to God, who notices the details of our lives sufficiently to record them all. The enemy has twisted this truth into a weapon of psychological torment—particularly for Adventists who fear judgment. But I propose that we see it as a mark of God’s care rather than His condemnation. He chronicles the spiritual journeys of His children in loving detail, and this is evidence that He broods over us like a compassionate, concerned mother.
It Trashes Denial
Like a child craving boundaries from a parent, we sense love even when it’s tough. The sanctuary is God’s tough love program—all the more desperately needed in today’s permissive climate. One of our modern mantras is the scold “get real.” The sanctuary truth is God’s message to “Get real, people!” Sin is, after all, the cause of the damage in our lives. Why then do we reject a teaching because it’s tough on sin? That’s reminiscent of the child who irrationally refuses bad-tasting but life-saving medicine because pleasantness is his litmus test of good and bad.
In contrast, unpleasant confrontation is understood by many today to be a means of saving
people from their pet addictions. Dr. Phil has made big business out of it. But long before Dr. Phil, God designed a system of confrontation and accountability called the heavenly sanctuary. Why not affirm it? In God’s bidding to put away sin lies the promise that it is possible. This is good news for pedophiles, warlocks, and snipers, but it is also good news for those who are crying out for release from the power of more socially acceptable sins.
It Treasures Community
This may pinpoint another sanctuary doctrine stumbling block—it seems to be all about sin! So negative and moralistic compared to the light-hearted, feel-good messages of popular churches. In dealing with this apparent negativity, it helps to define what sin is at its core. According to the Scriptures, it is falling short of God’s law.13 Simple reasoning follows that if God’s law is love, then sin is failing at love. That means that the putting away of sin involves coming into love—a love relationship with God, but even more relevant to today’s cry, a loving community with other human beings.
The breakdown of the family,14 the mounting strife in the halls of power, and the threat of terrorism speak to the multiplied fracturing of human bonds. Postmodernists crave and idealize community. The doctrine of the sanctuary posits that alienation is an outcropping of sin, and with the removal of sin, at-one-ment is made possible. By demolishing the sin-barriers, the sanctuary facilitates relationships and brings about true intimacy and brotherly love.
Keeping It Simple
Alongside the flagrant materialism and consumerism of the age is a countermovement toward simplicity. Many conservationists propose a minimalist lifestyle of principled abstinence from the excesses of the West. Long before this current trend, God called His people on a yearly basis to put aside diversions and to fast and pray for personal holiness.15 Adventism has taught that this annual Yom Kippur set the tone and laid the groundwork for the last leg of earth’s history when God’s people would be called to retreat from the follies of the world into uncluttered devotion.16 Our lack of understanding of the real significance of biblical simplicity has led some to condemn plain wedding rings while parading around in extravagant cars. The observance of particulars while forgetting principles always leads to inconsistency. The day of at-one-ment is the real reason we shun display and embrace piety. God is calling us to surrender things that provoke competition and pride that we might enter into a more settled union with Him and one another.
For all its counterfeit forms, true piety is a beautiful thing—and represents another common seeker-thirst. The ever more irreverent climate of the world barrages us with sensual and degrading images and sounds. While the majority may revel, there are some who have long since grown weary of the world and long for a restored sense of the sacred.
The sanctuary doctrine speaks to our quest for holiness by showing us how sinful humans may, through the blood of Jesus, interface with a holy God. The popularity of the disciples of yoga and meditation and the plethora of therapeutic techniques that emerge from the field of psychology should tell us that spiritual discipline is a priority for many. Even more, some of these methods involve introspection and wrestling with the deep, hidden motives that feed addictions and compulsive behaviors. But before there was psychoanalysis or meditation there was a sanctuary in heaven that guided God’s children through the heart-searching process, permeating layer upon layer of their souls with a Spirit more gentle-yet-penetrating than laser surgery. Taught by the power of that Spirit, the sanctuary doctrine is the best recovery program in town.
What Gives Our Faith Its Allure?
During the time I studied with Emily, I was slated to do an evangelistic series through my local church. Because I was a woefully inexperienced evangelist, the church board wanted to guide my sermon-writing process. “We want something that meets people’s felt needs,” they explained. “Something practical rather than theoretical.” I went home and carefully mapped out a series of talks that began with things such as “Raising Teens” and “Learning to Forgive” and progressed to the more doctrinal topics.
I reconvened with the board and presented my plan. As soon as I began talking about doctrine, some of the board members began to squirm. “People don’t want to hear doctrine!” one individual said. “They want to hear about the wonderful love of God.”
I knew what this individual meant, for doctrine can be preached so tediously that even the angels must sleep. But my conversations with Emily and others had revealed something quite opposite of what some Adventists believe—that doctrines are what give our faith its allure. In fact, the distinctive truths of our church are the pressure-cut jewels that catch the light of Jesus and dazzle the true seeker with His beauty. It may be that years of Christ-less, dry-bones religion has left some of us in a state of doctrinal burnout, but we should be careful not to project our postlegalistic stress disorder onto those outside of our faith.
A religion without well-defined, responsibly substantiated, pragmatically applied doctrines is about as wonderful as Wonder Bread. It may go down easy, but it doesn’t nourish. True—grocery store shelves may hold more white bread than stoneground, organic, seven-grain with sunflower seeds, but those devoted to eating whole grains will pay triple the price. There are seekers out there—men and women looking wistfully to heaven—and they will sell all they have to buy the faith of Jesus. Will we deliver on the promise? Will we share these precious truths shamelessly?
Of all the doctrines in our treasure chest, one stands out as the unique contribution we make to Christian theology. Other churches teach the biblical Sabbath,17 the health message,18 and conditional immortality.19 We alone teach the sanctuary truth. Will we cherish the treasure that makes us unique, or trash it as a useless relic? The Emilys of the world await our reply.
1 Daniel 1, 2, and 6.
2 Daniel 7.
3 Daniel 8.
4 Daniel 8:14.
5 This date is calculated by subtracting the beginning date of the prophecy, spoken of in Daniel 9:25 and believed by most scholars to be 457 B.C., from the 2300-day figure found in Daniel 8:14. Using the day-year principle of prophetic interpretation, and compensating for the zero year when passing from B.C. to A.D., this arrives at the year 1844, the year of the Great Disappointment. William Miller had preached the second coming of Jesus in that year, and believers were disappointed when Christ did not return. Yet the faithful were driven back to their Bibles, ultimately to discover that Miller was right about the date, but wrong about the event. This ultimately led them to believe that in 1844 Jesus began His ministration in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary.
6 The Great Controversy, p. 425, uses the term “investigative judgment.” The chapters “What Is the Sanctuary?” and “In the Holy of Holies” are an excellent synopsis of the historical and biblical foundations for the sanctuary doctrine.
7 Revelation 19:9.
8 The writings of Ellen White present two alternative views on the identity of the bride of Christ. The Great Controversy, pp. 426 and 427, says the bride is the New Jerusalem, the Holy City. In other places, she says that the bride is the church (Letter 39, 1902; Letter 117, 1901; Letter 1231⁄2, 1898). It seems to this author that when explaining the concept of the sanctuary it is most helpful to use the latter view. We must remember that in inspired writings metaphors are used flexibly. For instance, Jesus used the metaphor of yeast in one place to symbolize sin and in another to symbolize the kingdom of God.
9 Ronald Sider has written a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005).
10 On November 3, 2006, Ted Haggard resigned his leadership position in the National Association of Evangelicals and stepped aside as pastor of the New Life church in Colorado Springs over allegations of a sexual relationship with a male masseur and the use of methamphetamine. Politically, he opposed gay marriage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Haggard.
11 See The Great Controversy, p. 425.
12 Most nations are concerned about the migration of peoples from rural areas to large urban agglomerations. This trend began with industrialization and continues today. World Population Policies, United Nations publication sales no. E.04. XIII.
13 See 1 John 3:4.
15 See Leviticus 16:29-34.
16 See The Great Controversy, the chapters “What Is the Sanctuary?” and “In the Holy of Holies.”
17 The Seventh Day Baptist Church.
18 The Mormon Church teaches abstinence from caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol.
19 The Primitive Advent Christian Church and others.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, wife, mother, author, songwriter, and musician, writes from Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania.