I’ve been reading the saga of King Solomon’s construction of the temple in 2 Chronicles, including all of the decoration details that most folks probably gloss over. Today I got to 2 Chron. 3, where he built the Holy of Holies, which reminded me of how fascinating this one room was in all of Israel.
He said to me, “This is the Most Holy Place.” (Ezekiel 41:4)
To understand the Holy of Holies, you have to trace the path of God’s relationship with his people. In the beginning, that relationship was intimate and familiar; Adam and Eve walked with God, talked with him, and had no reason to hide from him. Sin changed that by severing the relationship, causing God to expel the people from his sight because he could not bear to be in the presence of sin. But God still loved us and strived to reunite with his people, but that process would be long and somewhat complicated.
Some of the first steps back to reestablishing that relationship was God descending to be among his people in a safe, acceptable way that would not incur the proper penalty for his wrath among sinful folk. God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses as a sign of his perfect law to be delivered to the people. The Commandments were put in the Ark of the Covenant, which became the physical vessel and symbol of God being among his people.
Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place,which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. (Hebrews 9:3-4)
However, when the people stopped to make camp, they had to sequester the Ark in the tabernacle, in an inner room that was designated for the “Holy of Holies.” It was in this 15x15x15 cubed room that the Ark rested, in the midst of the people but still cut off from them — again, both physically and symbolically. Solomon’s temple (and the subsequent second temple) had a more permanent Holy of Holies, still separate from the people by a three-foot thick curtain and inaccessable except by the high priest once a year. God was still among and with his people, but he was not united with them.
But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance […] They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:7-10)
The author of Hebrews does a great recap in chapter 9 as to the purpose of the Holy of Holies and how it connects to the lives of believers. In these verses he illustrates how the high priest would arrive in that room with a sacrifice that wasn’t fully able to absolve sins, but was commanded to be done to keep the people mindful of the need for forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of the innocent.
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:50-51)
The detail of the temple curtain tearing often goes unnoticed in the death narrative — there’s a lot going on, of course. But notice that here in Matthew, it happens the second Jesus dies on the cross. He dies, and the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the people is torn in two. Jesus’ death accomplishes God’s plan to reunite with his people by delivering a perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. The barrier between God and man is lowered, and God no longer needs to be hidden from his people.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)
Hebrews pontificates on the theological implications of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus is the ultimate high priest who does what every high priest before him cannot. He enters the Holy of Holies, he absolves sin with the blood offering, and the people are made righteous before God. The Holy Spirit then moved out of the temple for good and into the new temples — the lives of believers.
For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God,and they will be my people.” (1 Corinthians 6:16)
We are the temple of God. What the people of Israel could only imagine seeing in their lives in the Holy of Holies now exists inside of each of the elect. This verse in 1 Corinthians is a joyous proclamation that God has finally reestablished that long-broken relationship — he lives with us, walks with us, and belongs with us.