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Leading Question: How far is it possible to stretch a biblical symbol?

Comment: The title for this week’s lesson is a tantalizing one, for it suggests that ultimately, the biblical idea of “rest” should stay alive, on into a future, heavenly world, a world of which we are almost wholly ignorant.

So let’s go back and explore symbols that we could all agree are symbolic. And here I would suggest the law of God as something that is enduring. But I still remember how startled I was when I realized that the decalogue would make no sense in a heavenly realm.

An important biblical passage that undoubtedly shaped early Adventist thinking is Revelation 11:19:

“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.”

In Ellen White’s book, Early Writings, the report of an 1847 meeting clearly reveals a very concrete thinking group envisioning a real temple in heaven with a real decalogue. And I distinctly remember the moment when I realized that the decalogue would make no sense in a perfect world without adultery, murder, and a Sabbath marked by sundown and sunset as in this world.

But it seems to me that one has to tread carefully in such matters, for all-or-nothing thinking so easily puts faith at risk. This quotation from Ellen White suggests that at a later point in her life, she, too, realized that there was no concrete “temple” and “decalogue” in heaven:

But in heaven, service is not rendered in the spirit of legality. When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of. – Mount of Blessings, 109 (1896)

Symbols, Past, Present and Future

It might be helpful to list here some of the symbols that are part of the biblical tradition, pondering what their status is:

1. Animal Sacrifice. While all modern Christians would no doubt recoil from the thought of a real sacrifice being offered in a church, animal sacrifices are part of the biblical tradition. Is the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ a decisive way to end all animal sacrifice? Yet some conservative Christians envision the renewal of animal sacrifice during the millennium.

2. Circumcision. Though circumcision is not limited to the biblical tradition, in Genesis 17:13-14 God did command Abraham to circumcise all the males in his household:

“Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

While circumcision has simply vanished from sight, there is no indication at all in the Old Testament that it would pass from use. And Acts 15 describes the tussle that the apostolic church went through over the issue. Furthermore, as a symbol in the male body, it could hardly be a universal symbol for both male and female. In Romans 2:29, Paul clearly moves circumcision to the “spiritual” side of the ledger:

“A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.”

3. Sanctuary. Exodus 25:9 and Hebrews 8:5, both indicate that the earthly sanctuary was built according to the pattern set by God:

Exodus 25:9: “In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

Hebrews 8:5: They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

Yet scholars agree that the wilderness sanctuary was modeled after a Canaanite sanctuary – in a particular culture a church needs to look like a church to the people in that culture. Still it is striking to note the similarity between Israel’s sanctuary and those of their Canaanite neighbors.

As for the passage in Hebrews, scholars would again recognize that the sanctuary seen in Hebrews would have been understood as a replica of the “idea” of sanctuary in heaven, following the Platonic philosophy of the “ideas” or “ideal”: everything on earth is simply a replica of the “idea” in heaven.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the temple described in Ezekiel 40-48 is unlike any of the other biblical tabernacles/temples. And Revelation 21:22 says this about the temple in heaven: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”

In short, God’s personal presence overwhelms all pictures of the earthly sanctuary, and God’s personal presence, so tragically lost when Adam and Eve sinned, will once again be restored, as so beautifully stated in Revelation 21:1-4:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

4. Sabbath Rest. Some have interpreted the “Sabbath rest” of Hebrews 4:1-11 as a replacement for an outdated Sabbath rest. Yet if we follow the development of biblical ideas it is clear that the original idea of “Rest in Christ” remains robust, indeed, is strengthened. That’s the great blessing that comes from knowing the Sabbath as a gift, not just as a test:

1Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,

“As in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”

though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. 4 For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” 6 Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. 9 So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; 10 for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

On balance, all that was lost in Eden will be restored. Genesis 3:8 tells how God came looking for Adam and Eve in the garden, wanting to talk with them, the Creator with his created beings. But alas, sin had mutilated God’s ideal.

But now all that was lost is restored.

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them. – Revelation 21:4

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