Nick Moore writes: You may have heard the phrase ‘so heavenly minded as to be of little earthly use’. It assumes earth and heaven are separate and sealed spheres. Yet in fact heaven ultimately not only influences but in some sense determines what takes place on earth, so the more truly heavenly minded we are, the more engaged and effective we will be on earth.
No New Testament book explores this dynamic more extensively and dramatically than Revelation. In this post I explore two particularly striking features of Revelation’s portrayal of the celestial realm – heaven is open and heaven is a temple – and where they coincide, asking why, how this compares to other texts of the time, and what this might mean for us.
Revelation explicitly states that God’s heavenly sanctuary is opened at two points (Rev 11.19 and 15.5). Those aren’t the only places where we find heavenly openings in Revelation, however, so let me walk you through the book to point out some heavenly temple features you may (or may not) have noticed.
First, the temple theme is there from the word go. In Revelation 1, Jesus is dressed as a priest and walks among seven lampstands – seemingly a combination of the ten lampstands in the outer court of Solomon’s temple, and the seven-branched menorah in the tabernacle and Herod’s temple (the latter can still be seen represented on Emperor Titus’s triumphal Arch in Rome’s forum, right).
In the letter to the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3 Jesus describes himself as holding the key of David with the power to open and shut. The description comes from Isaiah 22.22, for which the Targum (an Aramaic paraphrase) reads ‘the key of the house of the sanctuary’. Jesus goes on to say ‘I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut’ (3.8), and the letter ends with a promise that the one who overcomes will be made ‘a pillar in the temple of my God’ (3.12). This is not so much a figurative open door of opportunity, then, as the open door of heaven itself – and heaven-as-temple at that. The purpose here is to offer assurance and encouragement to the beleaguered church of Philadelphia.
This reading of Rev 3.8 is confirmed when we get to 4.1 and find the exact same phrase: ‘after this I looked, and behold, an open door in heaven’. Our attention in Rev 4–5 is rightly drawn by the throne (a central motif in Revelation), but this should not throw us off the scent: for God, his royal throne in heaven is also the centre of worship – and the tabernacle and temple reflected this in their innermost chamber or holy of holies, with God’s throne (or footstool) represented by the ark of the covenant. Revelation 4–5 is one big worship scene, a revelation of God’s being, dwelling, and worthiness of ceaseless worship. They prepare for what is to come.
In Revelation 6.9–11 we find an altar in heaven—perhaps the altar of burnt offering, which stood outside the temple, or the altar of incense from inside the holy place or first chamber. Whichever it is, it is a place of asylum for the martyrs – so the temple is a sanctuary in both nuances of our English word. Immediately afterwards, there is a scene of judgment: the sun is darkened, the moon turns to blood, the stars fall to earth, and ‘the sky split apart like a scroll being rolled up’ (6.14). The heavens don’t so much depart (KJV), vanish (NRSV), or recede (NIV) as split apart in the middle, if we give weight to the nuance of separation in the verb apochōrizō. Once the heaven has split apart, the rulers of the earth see ‘the one seated on the throne and the Lamb’ – that is, they see exactly the same throne room-sanctuary as John did in Rev 4–5. The difference is that this is very decidedly for judgment not assurance.
In Rev 11.19 ‘God’s sanctuary in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen…’. This makes clear that we are dealing with the innermost holy of holies, where the ark was kept (at least until the destruction of the first temple, see Jer 3.16; 4 Ezra 10.22). The ark was a symbol of God’s covenant and presence with his people, and in early days in the land went with the Israelites into battle. It portends both assurance – the covenant God is with and for his people – and danger – if not respected, any involved will suffer (see 1 Sam 4-7; 2 Sam 6). Here both aspects may be present, but the accent falls on judgment with the accompanying thunder, lightning, earthquake, and hail.
Coming to Rev 15.5–6, the sanctuary is opened for seven angels with seven plagues to exit. The fact that ‘sanctuary’ is clarified as ‘the tent of testimony’ again points to the ark, which is called the ‘ark of testimony’ in a few places, and contained the ‘tablets of testimony’ – the ten words of the covenant given to Moses. There may be a word of assurance to God’s people, but the overwhelming emphasis is again on judgment as the angels come out to bring plagues on the earth, and the temple is filled with smoke until they have finished their work (compare the inauguration of tabernacle and temple in Exod 40.34-38 and 1 Kings 8.10-11, respectively).
The penultimate stop on this tour is Rev 19.11, where John sees ‘heaven opened’ (the only place in Revelation where heaven itself is described as opened), for Jesus the Word of God to ride out on a white horse for the final battle. Temple ideas are more muted here, as the royal-military aspects are highlighted, but the context is still one of praise and worship (11.1-10, echoing Rev 4-5).
Our final stop is the great climax of the whole book in Revelation 21–22, where heaven and earth combine as the New Jerusalem descends and God is with his people perfectly and eternally. Here we hit a surprising statement:
I did not see a sanctuary in [the city], for the Lord God Almighty is its sanctuary, and the Lamb (Rev 21.22).
The temple has apparently disappeared. Yet things are not quite so straightforward.
The city is temple shaped, a cube, like the holy of holies (21.16); God’s throne is still there, as it was in the heavenly temple (21.3), as is his glory – a key temple-related theme (21.11, 23); impurity is excluded, just as it was from the earthly temple (21.8, 27); and the twelve foundation stones evoke the twelve precious stones on the high priest’s breastpiece (Exod 28.17-20), both of them set in gold. And there are numerous further connections with Ezekiel’s vision of an end-times temple (Ezek 40–48).
What is more, these chapters open with the statement ‘behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them’ – the Greek words here are skēnē and skēnoō, ‘tabernacle’ or ‘tent’, and ‘to tabernacle’ (as in John 1.14). So there is no sanctuary in the New Jerusalem because the whole place is a sanctuary, as well as being a garden and a city (the Garden of Eden and city of Jerusalem are closely bound up with the temple in any case). In this connection, it is fascinating that the city’s gates are not shut, either at night (because there is no night) or by day – because there is no danger of anything impure or unclean or false getting in (Rev 21.25, 27). In other words, we find an open sanctuary in Rev 21–22 as well – but here, it highlights the perfect and enduring salvation of God’s people.
In sum, then, we find heaven as an open sanctuary throughout the Book of Revelation, and for two major reasons. It signifies:
- the point of departure for his judgment; and
- the extraordinarily privileged and secure nature of the salvation he imparts.
Neither of these themes is unique to Revelation. Other biblical and Second Temple texts are interested in heaven, heavenly sanctuary, and heavenly openings.
(1) The theme of judgment is not totally unexpected: where the tabernacle or temple’s sanctity is violated, it ends badly for those involved (as for example Nadab and Abihu in Lev 10.1–2, and Korah and his followers in Num 16. 31–35). Nor was this limited to the era encompassed by the Old Testament: the book of 3 Maccabees recounts Ptolemy IV Philopator’s attempt to enter the most holy place at the end of the third century BC, resulting in temporary paralysis which the Jews hailed as a sign of God’s judgment (3 Macc 2.21-24).
Yet what we find in Revelation is the temple as the originating locus for God’s judgment to go outwards into all the world. A rare parallel to this is found in the Testament of Levi, a book which shows signs of both Jewish and Christian influence. After his sister Dinah is raped, Levi has a heavenly vision of a sanctuary, at the end of which he is equipped with a sword and told to avenge her (T. Levi 5.2–4). This is an interesting expansion and alternative spin on Gen 34, but for our purposes it is not dissimilar from Revelation’s angels who are commissioned to judge the earth.
(2) Themes of salvation and assurance can also be found. At the end of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, at the point of his martyrdom, he has a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand. The general idea is from Ps 110.1, but the specific notion of standing is unique to Acts 7, and seems odd until we realize that standing is a priestly position. Jesus the priest in God’s heavenly sanctuary stands ready, and Stephen entrusts his spirit to him before he dies. A more universal picture is found in Heb 4.14–16, where believers can see and draw near to ‘the throne of grace’ (a unique phrase, but clearly referring to the ark), as a source of help and forgiveness. The imagery is close to Rev 11.19, but the contrast is telling; glimpsing the ark in Hebrews gives assurance, but in Revelation warns of judgment.
In all, then, Revelation stands out not for these themes in themselves, but for the extent to which it develops them. There is no fuller treatment of heaven-as-temple. Revelation is unique in the weight of its emphasis on judgment emerging from the heavenly sanctuary – and at the same time it surpasses other texts in its expansive vision of heaven as a permanent and pure sanctuary within which God’s people find refuge and salvation, both now and supremely in the age to come.
Briefly in closing, then, what might this mean for readers of Revelation today? Here are three initial thoughts.
a. Heaven’s otherness. Heaven is not ‘up there’ in a straightforwardly spatial sense, or simply ‘to come’ temporally. It is a temple and a throne room, a city and a garden, a space and a time, now and not yet. The imagery captures something of the way it is utterly other, beyond our reach. Knowing that there is an alternative reality which surpasses our experience of life on earth (whether good or bad) is not merely a comfort but fundamentally (re)orientates our being and life.
b. Heaven’s closeness. The relationship between heaven and earth cannot be neatly pinned down in spatial or temporal terms – but that does not mean it doesn’t exist! John’s dynamic imagery in Revelation is precisely an attempt to capture heaven’s proximity, its impact on what takes place on earth. In this sense both space and time matter, but we need to exercise care in how we map or measure them in a text like Revelation. What is key is that heaven is there, and it connects and interacts with this world. The opening of the heavenly temple expresses this well: heaven, like the Jerusalem temple, is meant to centre and shape the whole of life.
c. Heaven’s holiness. Like a temple, and as God’s dwelling place, heaven is holy. Holiness is the root notion that accounts for the balance of judgment alongside salvation in Revelation. Objections to notions of God’s judgment are often correlated with failure to take into account his holiness; but by a similar token, underestimating his holiness will mean we underestimate the superlative salvation he offers. Revelation majors on both these themes, but ultimately the Lamb wins, and the heavenly temple is opened for all who follow him, forever.
Dr Nick Moore is Academic Dean and Lecturer in New Testament at Cranmer Hall, and teaches Biblical Studies and New Testament Greek. He is passionate about conveying the wealth of the biblical and Christian tradition to each and every person, and carrying the gospel across languages and cultures. Nick is married to Bekah, who shares his love of languages and ministry, and they have two primary-aged children.