Why does Revelation depict heaven as an ‘open temple’?

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:

  1. the point of departure for his judgment; and
  2. 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.

The image at the top is from the stunning graphic novel of Revelation by Chris Koelle and others. You can see some of the images from the book on behance.com

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.

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19 thoughts on “Why does Revelation depict heaven as an ‘open temple’?”

  1. I was looking at an ordinary house in a remote part of the middle east. The roofed part of the building was set within a courtyard. This open space was where all the cooking was done and any other household activity. How like the ancient Temple these simple houses are. God’s house, to the ancient mind must have looked like a grand version of their own dwellings. The altar in the courtyard like any oven or stove.

  2. Very stimulating. I shall be printing this off to re-read no doubt many times over. In distant days Revelation was my MTh NT text and isn’t it just so annoying when one comes across something one didn’t think of at the time!! So a special ‘thank you’ for a great combination of scholarly reflection and simplicity.

  3. The point about apochorizo is terrific – not sure why some translations don’t pick this up.

    It reminds me of the song (words: Stewart & Carol Henderson, sung by and I imagine composed by Martyn Joseph) ‘Everything in Heaven Comes Apart’ (‘comes apart’ as in ‘opens up’ and ‘explains/reveals itself’). One almost thinks of a jack in the box. Or of curtain-up. Or (as the hymn writer Charles Tindley has it) ‘We’ll understand it better by and by’.

    • (though of course the last example flirts with the very dualism you’re trying to avoid. There is of course some of that genuine Christian dualism for example in 1 Cor 13: now we see through a glass darkly, but then….)

  4. This is marvellous, thank you: deeply refreshing.
    1. It is a splendid addition to GK Beale’s “The Temple and the Church’s Mission, a Biblical theology of the dwelling place of God.” (2004 IVP, Apollos)

    2.Beale develops the temple theme in relation to the kingdom of God, including the Garden temple theme, from Genesis through Revelation; cosmic symbolism of temples in OT, the earthly temple as a reflection of the heavenly or cosmic temple.
    3 The thesis is that the three part Temple/tabernacle symbolise, a microcosm , a pattern of the entire heaven earth; it follows a redemtive-historical development, trajectory, in it’s fulfilment.
    1 outer court where humanity dwelt, land see, human habitation
    2 holy place – the visible heavens and light sources (eg placing of lampstands
    3 holy of holies- the invisible realm where God dwelt with his heavenly host.
    This points forward to a huge world-wide sanctuary in which God’s presence would dwell in every part of the cosmos: pictured by John as the new heavens and earth to be one mammoth temple in which God dwells as he had formerly dwelt in the holy of holies. (measured as a cube)

    4 Beale traces the temple theme, through OT, then in the NT, in the Gospels, Acts, epistles of Paul, Peter, Hebrews onto Revelation.

    5 Revelation
    5.1. 11:1-4 He sets this against the background of Ezekiel 40-48; Zechariah 4.

    5.2 Revelation 21-22 – a portrait of an arboreal city-temple, in which there shall be nothing unclean Rev 21:27.
    Additionally the city-temple joins up the “seeing – hearing ” pattern in Revelation. It equates to God dwelling, tabernacling with them. Verse 3 is a combined allusion to Leviticus 26: 11-12 and Ezekiel 37:27… and Beale continues with more drawing together of scripture.

    5.3 The new city-temple is equated with the paradisal city-temple.

    5.4 How John can see new heavens and earth in Rev 21:1 , then see only a city in the form of a garden-like temple (21:2-3, 9-22:5) is resolved by seeing God’s purpose of the temple throughout biblical history: God’s presence with his people, (the essence of the Holy of Holies – a square or cube I Kings 6:20)) a recapitulation and expansion the garden/temple of Eden.

    5.5 God’s throne is now in the midst of God’s people (Rev 22:1, 3)
    ” …the temple of god has been transformed into God, his people and the rest of the new creation as the temple.”
    6 ” The main point of the book is that our task as the covenant community, the church, is to be God’s temple, so filled with his glorious presence that we expand and fill the earth with that presence until god finally the goal completely at the end of time!
    This is our mission.”

    Is this something to get excited about, to look forward to; to share. Little wonder St Paul could claim, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

    • Glad you are a Beale fan. I honestly cannot describe how much I admire his coherent and broad-horizoned Biblical theology.

  5. Ian points out in his book that there were both Jews and Gentiles in the churches. The gentiles may have imagined the temple more like a grand Roman villa. John is stepping over the threshold into the atrium where guests were entertained. Roman lampstands were sometimes like standard lamps with polished plates where the individual clay lamps could be placed on top. Perhaps we are like little clay lamps perched on golden platters supported on lampstands. In the centre of the atrium or peristyle would be the central feature, a statue or fountain. At the back opposite the entrance are steps up to the inner rooms. The owner of the villa would sit to recieve the guests. This is where the invitation to ‘come up here’ would be issued. After John has taken in the atrium’s display of wealth and inspected the various lampstands he is invited further in and further up.

  6. Hello Christopher,
    I was excited when I bought the book when it came out, but no-one I knew showed the remotest interest, though I was made aware of it at a set of Anglican arranged lectures.

    You’re probably aware that my poor abstract skims the surface.
    He was co editor of a book I gave to the church, but there was a tepid response. I used it for my own edification: “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.”
    I found it a little patchy due to the different authors, and it was technically beyond me in the languages, but there was always something to glean and edify.
    I’m thankful for Godly, Christian scholars, teachers and preachers of all denominations.
    The coherence of the Bible is stunning. It could only ever be God breathed

    • Definitely one of my favourite books, a standard. I very strongly recommend too his Biblical Theology of the New Testament, and his various works on Revelation (the Commentary, the studies of the use of the OT and of the use of Daniel).

  7. “Here, we see through a glass, darkly. Then we shall see Him, face to face”. (Scripture)

    Why do Evangelical scholars major on identifying specifics about the situation of the after-life, when even Scripture advises us to treat this subject with reverence and wonder? The Book of Revelation has a major focus on Judgement, which seems to engage Evangelical scholars more avidfly that even the salvific content of the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. What the world needs now is the attraction of the Good News and perhaps less of the Bad.

    • The good news is only good news in the context of the the bad. Only felt need will draw us to Christ. Perhaps that’s why Jesus spoke so often of judgement.

    • It is contrary to make a virtue of ignorance/mystery, because if you do that, then even knowledge that we do have (which is precious) is minimised. Secondly, to claim to know nothing involves zero research and also zero effort. Not impressive. Just because there’s a number of things we know very little or nothing about, some extend that into a sweeping generalisation (and sweeping generalisations are never intelligent) about knowing nothing about anything at all – quite a leap of logic. Third rate is to claim to know everything. Second rate is to claim to know nothing. First rate is to be precise about how much we do and do not know on a sliding scale.

      Paul on that occasion was speaking about one of the things we know very little about. But only in the light of the future when we would know more. It is absolutely fine to state ignorance as a fact, but it is contrary to make a virtue of it.

      I think the reason people try to make a virtue of it is because if nothing were certain then anything goes, which suits them fine.

    • FRS,
      Do I take it that you don’t want to be judged, or have no need? That you are basically a good person by any human standard?
      As a father, do you ever warn, give out warnings, of consequences?
      Are there eternal consequences? What are they and from what do they result?
      And if you think that the above article does not hold out Good News, I’d suggest you need to seek some comprehension. Is this the only life there is or will be?
      God’s people, in God’s place, with God present.
      What is not Good News about that?
      Doesn’t it make you heart leap, as you joy in Him?
      And what about the Catholic invention of Purgatory? Any views?

      • FRS,
        I recall one CoE minister at a funeral of his lovely Christian mother, saying that she’d seen to a number of funerals and that they fell largely into two categories, those that offered
        1. no hope
        2 false hope
        Rare were those that spoke about real true hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus.

  8. “Every gospel presentation includes the bad news – that you’re trying to save yourself…”
    Part of tweet by Timothy Keller.

  9. I’ve been thinking on this since the day you published it. It’s your title question, why. Especially, as is pointed out, the feature of it being open or things coming out of it, which is so totally counter cultural, counter intuitive, given that the whole place was made to be closed, to exclude progressively more people so that the inner parts are completely inaccessible and invisible to the public.

    It isn’t the normal place where judgements happen, that’s done by judges and elders at city gates, under trees etc

    And to cap it all the messenger angels and a guy on a horse ride out. Which begs the question of how they got in there in the first place if we’re going to be pedantic, which we’d better not be.

    I suppose it’s deliberately mixing the metaphors of throne room and temple, anathema at first sight to the Jewish exiled Christians who are probably still traumatised by what happened to the Jerusalem temple with Emperor symbols being taken in there before razing the place to the ground and the massacre of friends, relatives, city officials and everyone else. But vital maybe for making the transfer to not rejecting temple ideas all together but instead channelling them into resisting Emperor cult pressures. Making certain there is no place whatsoever for any syncretism.

    Makes me think about how hard Samuel and David worked to establish the concept of God as king. I can’t find any references to him as that until Samuel starts praying Sovereign Lord and of course David’s psalms etc So the idea of the kingship of God is there already and is repeated in Paul’s letters but here in Revelation it obviously rams the point home, the overlap of the throne room and temple.

    I was trying to imagine what it feels like, the whew type behaviour as the trauma that the refugees brought with them from Jerusalem into the new multicultural churches began to fade, no more temple, ok so lets move on. Why stir up that pain again? and the peace peace feeling that once Nero was dead that sort of trouble was over too. Let’s get respectable so we’ll be left alone. I remember that being part of the rationale when the New Church Movement started to work actively to become Big Church, combining smaller groups in order to be able to make more of a presence in their towns and cities. I still feel very uneasy about how much was lost in terms of friendship and lay participation for the sake of a more professional look. I think it is significant that as a result of amalgamations of smaller flocks into larger ones their leaders were so shocked at the loss and distress of their former sheep. I personally knew 3 who died prematurely within a couple of years and met the wife of another who said he’d died of a broken heart. Like William J Seymour who led the initial Azusa Street revival . (Obv I’m not against big churches per se) How much more so God hated the compromises and loss that went with it, to the point of feeling the need to speak out Revelation reinforcing the link between judgement and religious practice. And dear elderly John (if it was him) after the eloquence of Rev now just repeating over and over in his letters longing for them just to get back to the heart of the matter, to love.


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