What Is A Holy Place?1
We have assembled here this evening to set this place apart for the worship and service of God. It will then be the sanctuary, or holy place, for this church. But what will make it a holy place? What makes one place holy instead of others? When Moses was called by God at the burning bush, the LORD said to him, “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What made that little patch of sand in the Sinai different from other sand, what made it a holy place?
The simple answer is that God was there. Wherever the LORD makes his presence known is a holy place; and when people respond to his presence by dedicating the place to him they are acknowledging that it is holy. The term “holy” simply means “set apart from common use, distinct,” and “unique.” Likewise we speak of “holy matrimony”--not a civil marriage but a marriage that is distinctly Christian, set apart to the glory of God. Or, we read of a “holy convocation”--not a general assembly but a gathering of believers to worship and serve the LORD. To call a place a holy place is to acknowledge that it is set apart for the service of God.
I must say that I have not always found this concept easy to recognize. Perhaps you have had the same experience. I have attended churches that were struggling to get started and therefore rented places to meet. It was at times hard to remember that they were sanctuaries. One church met in a Moose Hall, the facilities of the loyal order of Moose. And hanging on the wall behind the platform was an enormous moose head. Well, a certain amount of rearrangement of the room was necessary to avoid that distraction. For a while my family attended a church that met in a dance studio. Every wall in the room was covered with full mirrors. As a teenager I thought that was so cool--you could sit there and look at everyone in the room in one mirror or another. But that was short lived--they put curtains up.
The surroundings certainly can enhance or hinder worshipful meditations. But we must remember that worship is not limited to a particular holy place or setting-- the place becomes a holy place because of what happens there, or what has happened there in the past. A place becomes a holy place because God has chosen to make his presence known in some way at that place. And so while the setting might be prepared in every way to encourage and enhance worship, it is the presence of the LORD that makes the place special.
Now, even though people can worship anywhere, the growing assembly of believers in an area need a place to meet. In the first decades of the church most of the followers of Jesus in Israel were Jewish. They continued to go to the Temple to hear the glorious choirs, see the grand ritual (although see it anew through the fulfillment of Christ), pray, and share their faith. They also continued to go to their synagogues because there they heard the Scriptures read, received the blessings and prayers, and heard traditional teachings. But as believers in Jesus, they also met in homes where they continued to learn of the apostles’ teachings, enjoy “Christian” fellowship, have their ritual of holy communion, and pray (Acts 2:42-47). Their new life in Christ was cause for great rejoicing and praising, and for sharing what they had so that they could be one in Christ. The early Christians did not just think up these activities that are mentioned by Luke. There was a long tradition of worship activities behind all the things that they were doing. And so we need to look at some of those activities to see how places of worship became holy.
Many of the old places of worship were retained by the church; but there was also a great change. When their numbers grew, they needed to expand houses to make church buildings. And when the Temple was destroyed (70 A.D.), that place of praise came to an end. Then, near the end of the first century Christians were excluded from synagogues in a not-too-subtle way.2 Many of the places that were made famous for the mighty works Jesus had done in them became locations for commemorative churches--new “holy places” arose that commemorated the main events of the new covenant--at Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. But the early followers of Jesus had the same motivations and expectations when they gathered to worship as the Old Testament believers had. And so a review of that will provide us with some of the main features of worship--and some of the reasons that a place may be called a holy place, a Sanctuary.
I. Anticipation and Preparation
In the Old Testament the devout believers anticipated going to the sanctuary, the Temple in Jerusalem, because they knew that it was the “house of the LORD.” It was there in the holy city that God had chosen Mount Zion to be his dwelling place among his people (Ps. 132:13. 14). The true worshipers loved to be in that holy place: “How amiable are your tabernacles, O LORD of hosts; My soul longs, yea, even faints for the courts of the LORD. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Ps. 84:1,2). When it came time to make one of the pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they would say, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’” (Ps. 122:1). At the festivals they would sing and dance and feast, celebrating the fact that they were the chosen people of God. When they were not able to go to the sanctuary for one reason or another, they pined away, as the writer of Psalm 42 wrote, apparently under attack from his enemies: “These things I remember and pour out my soul within me. How I went with the throng, and led them to the house of God. With the voice of joy and praise, a multitude keeping holy day (v. 4). And when they could go, they would enjoy all the spiritual blessings from the LORD ministered to them by under-shepherds: teaching the word of God, healing them spiritually, guiding them in all truth, protecting them from all danger, providing for their needs; they would have loved to dwell in the house of the LORD for ever (Ps. 23). But they, like us, will find a better house of the LORD.
It is the challenge of the church to provide every opportunity for the worshiping community to experience the richness of being in God’s presence in a special way. The coming to the Lord’s house will then become an occasion of joy, and not a drudgery.
The devout believers in Israel also knew that to go to the House of the LORD required spiritual preparation. A holy place demanded holiness in the people, because they were entering the presence of the holy LORD God. Their motivation had to be properly spiritual; after all, they were to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise,” giving thanks to him and blessing his name (Ps. 100:4). But as they came to the gates they would meet the Levitical gatekeepers who would assess their spiritual preparation with a little liturgical question and answer: “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD, and who may stand in his holy place? --He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully” (Ps. 24:3, 4). This served to remind the worshipers that no one was in the proper spiritual condition to enter the presence of God; it reminded them that they needed to come with a sacrifice. And that is a timeless truth: entrance into the presence of the holy, living God, today in worship, and in the future in glory, is only possible through the shed blood of the atoning sacrifice for our sins. We today do not bring a sacrifice; but we do claim by faith the sacrifice of Christ.
If Christians today realize who it is they worship, and what their worship means in a place like this, a place set apart for divine service, then they too will realize the need for spiritual preparation--the confession of sin and the giving attention to spiritual things as they prepare to come to the house of the Lord.
II. Expectations and Duties
In order to get a better understanding of what a holy place was intended to be, it will be helpful for us to survey the main reasons why the Israelite believers went up to the House of the LORD. Their expectations and duties there underscore the idea that the Sanctuary was a place set apart for the worship and service of the LORD.
1. They went up to the Sanctuary to see God!
David clearly declared this truth: “One thing I ask of the LORD--this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). Also: “I have seen you in the Sanctuary; and beheld your power and your glory” (Ps. 63:2). Of course, the Israelite worshipers did not actually see the LORD in the Holy of Holies. But they knew that his presence was there, and all the trappings of the Sanctuary reminded them that was place was special--it was the House of the LORD. But what they witnessed in the Sanctuary was the evidence of God’s power and glory--in the praises of the people, in the oracles of the prophets, in the great sacrificial ritual, and in the singing of the Levitical choirs that rehearsed the history of God with his people.
People need to know God is present and active in the lives of the people; they need to hear of his power and his glory. This is what the Sanctuary was set apart to do. One good example of this is Psalm 73. Asaph had become discouraged and disillusioned by life, almost giving up the faith--until he went into the Sanctuary and focused on the hope of glory that lay before him. It is in such a holy place that the people of God should be able to adjust their perspective on life as they witness the proof of his presence and the promise of his glory.
2. They went up to the Sanctuary to offer praise and thanksgiving.
People could express their thanks and praise to God at any time, anywhere--they still can. But God desired that such praise and thanksgiving be finally presented in the holy place, in the company of the believers, in the presence of God. Psalm 122:4 makes it very clear: among other reasons that people went to the services, one main reason was to offer thanksgiving to God--it was a binding statute for Israel. Not a choice, not an option. It was God’s commandment. To receive any benefit from God and not publicly praise him was a sin, for God blessed some people in order that they would share with others.
The way that this worked was that when people were praying they would include a “vow of praise,” a rehearsal of what they were going to say when God answered the prayer. Then, when the answer came, they had to “pay their vows.” To go to the Sanctuary to offer such praise meant that they would bring a peace offering, not to be burnt up, but to be cooked for a communal meal for all to eat, the worshipers, the choirs, the priests, and the poor (see Ps. 22:22, 26-29; and 66:13-20 to see how this whole cycle is developed). The point is that their praise and thanksgiving was more than music. Music they had--choirs and musicians always on duty for any gathering. But God also desired that they declare his name--who he was and what he had done--in the assembly. In this way the worshiper became articulate in his faith; but it also meant that people who were still praying would be encouraged to keep on praying. The church today needs to bring back times of praise (making sure it is done well); in that way the Sanctuary is indeed a holy place--a place unlike any other, a place where God is exalted and the saints are edified and strengthened.
3. They went up to the Sanctuary to proclaim the faith.
Every occasion of worship was an opportunity for Israel to proclaim the faith. You see, all the other nations around them had temples, priests, sacrifices, holy days and the lot. So what was said in the Sanctuary was critical if it was to be the true faith. When Abram came into the land, he built an altar and “made proclamation of the name (=nature) of the LORD” (Gen 12:1-9). As early as the exodus the families were supposed to recite why Passover night was different (Exod. 12:27); and so the liturgy of the exodus was set in place, especially for the children to know. When the worshipers came to offer the gifts to the LORD, they had a whole narrative about the faith that they were to recite (Deut. 26), beginning with the LORD’s calling of Abraham and then his giving them this bountiful land. They kept the history of the faith alive by the things they said in the Sanctuary, and by the events they commemorated with palm branches, little booths, and a number of other dramatic re-enactments.
But most of all the attributes of God became a fixed part of their worship. Beginning with God’s own revelation of them in Exodus 34 (vv. 5ff), they gradually developed a complete list of divine attributes, what is referred to in the Bible as the “name” (i.e., nature) or the LORD (see how this developed in Psalm 111; then see also how it was carried over to the early church in hymns and creeds [Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 3:16]). Once again, people could do this in private at home--and they probably did. But when they assembled in the Sanctuary it was far more powerful, for their rehearsal of the elements of their history and their faith--the creeds--bound them together as a community as nothing else could do. Their faith was a shared faith. And in the same way the early Christians came together to continue in the teachings of the Apostles--the doctrines.
4. They went up to the Sanctuary to pray.
Here too people could and did pray anywhere, anytime. And that pleases God, for it speaks of a walk with God in faith. But when the temple was built by Solomon, it was declared to be a house of prayer (1 Kings 8:22-61). Solomon knew that God did not need a house--the heavens of heavens could not contain him. But the people of God needed a place to draw near to him to pray, for that would be most effectual. Even though they could pray away from the Sanctuary (see Psalm 3), they preferred to pray in the Sanctuary (Ps. 5:8), because that was where the people came to pray together and for each other. Psalm 20 gives us a wonderful example of this. The first few verses are the intercessory prayer of the congregation on behalf of David, who was also praying and offering his sacrifices. Their prayers strengthened him in his prayers, so that he could declare, “Now I know that the LORD saved his anointed.” Jesus certainly sought to preserve the integrity of the place as a house of prayer (Matt. 21:13). And the early Christians knew the value of coming together for prayers.
If there is one aspect of the Christian life that needs the community to come together it is certainly this cycle of prayer and praise. The prayers of the people strengthen and encourage the prayers of the individual, and draw the saints together in true fellowship. The church to be a true holy place must re-capture this emphasis on prayer in the Sanctuary.
5. They went up to the Sanctuary to renew their spiritual life.
This they could not do at home whenever it was convenient, for the renewal of their spiritual life was connected to their offering the sacrifices, especially the sin offering and atoning offerings, accompanied by the confession of sin. They offered the sacrifices not to attain salvation, but to retain and maintain their spiritual relationship with the LORD.
We do not offer animal sacrifices, for they were a type, a prophetic sign, of the true sacrifice that would be made once and for all for sin--the sacrifice of Christ. But we do have a ritual in the church that, like the Israelites’ ritual, points to the death of Christ. It is called Holy Communion, or Eucharist (“thanksgiving”), or the Lord’s Supper. And this ritual must be done in communion with other believers who also are in communion with the Lord by faith. We eat the bread, and we drink from the cup, to proclaim the Lord’s death. It is an expression of our faith, a re-living of the moment that we first received Christ and entered the New Covenant in his blood. Our Lord does not say how often this is to be done; but it is to be done. Now people can gather in the name of Christ anywhere to do this; but a church set apart for the worship of the Lord is the natural place for this holy meal because it will keep it from being confused with an common meal. It is not a common meal, not common food; but it is holy communion, and so best observed in a holy place.
The participation in the Holy Communion is for the worshiper an opportunity to renew his or her faith. It is a covenant renewal service. Because as we do it in “remembrance” of him, we both remind him of his promises to us, and are reminded of our covenant obligations to him. The word “remembrance” or “memorial” in the Bible means to act on the basis of what is remembered (“Lord, remember me”). So the celebration of Holy Communion is not just a somber reflection on a death, but a living hope in the New Covenant that death brought to us. “This is the cup of the New Covenant.” This is our proclamation, together, as the people of God. And so too the early Christians met regularly for this breaking of bread.
6. They went up to the Sanctuary to renew their covenant commitments.
The last point leads to this one, that the place of worship was not simply a place of praise and prayer and celebration. It was a place of divine instruction. The people went to the Sanctuary to hear from God. This would happened in any number of ways. They would hear from God in the reading of the Scripture (Neh. 9; Exod. 24) and respond, “All that the LORD has said we are willing to do.” They would hear divine instruction from the priests, the clergy, for their main duty was to teach the Word of God (Mal. 2:1-9; Neh. 8). It was their responsibility to know the Word well enough to discern if the teaching was from God or not. Along this line they would also hear messages from the prophets (see Isa. 1), especially when the priestly ministry was faulty. But people would also hear from God through the inspired words of other believers who would teach them and guide them in the way they should go as they praised God for what he had done for them (Ps. 32:8, 9). Mark it well, any church building where the Word of God is not clearly heard by the people is not a holy place.
It is no different than any other assembly hall.
But revelation always demands a response. And so the people came to speak to God in response to his Word. They came to make their vows to obey and do his will (Exod. 24:3, 7; Ps. 40:7, 8). They came to pay their vows (Deut. 26:1-15; Acts 21:20-26; and 1 Sam. 1:11, 21-28). And they came to “remember” their covenant duties as they celebrated being in covenant with the holy and living God. When they heard the Word of the LORD, they would repent of their sin, change their way of living, and renew their commitments to serve him. Their covenant duties included among other things taking care of the poor and the needy, the orphan and the widow, and the foreigner in their midst. These were basic activities that would be counted as personal acts of righteousness. Their duties also included championing righteousness in society, preserving the faith against heresy, and proclaiming the faith to the world so that God’s kingdom would be extended to the Gentiles. All the activities that went on in that holy place, that Sanctuary, were supposed to produce a holy people who would function as a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19; see also 1 Pet. 2). To dedicate a place as a Sanctuary is to make the commitment to be a people set apart to the worship and the service of the Lord.
7. They went up to the Sanctuary to receive a blessing.
There is a lot of use of this word “blessing” today, but it does not always focus on what the Bible means by it. The Israelite believers were trusting the Lord to bless, that is, enrich, them physically through sending the rains and causing their crops to grow--they prayed for this, and rejoiced when it happened. But the highlight of their worship experience in the Sanctuary came after the High Priest made the full atoning sacrifice on their behalf and emerged to pronounce the blessing of Numbers 6:22-27 (see Lev. 9)--a spiritual blessing. The oracle of the priest was not a prayer, not a wish, not a benediction--it was a word from God. “The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his face toward you and give you peace.” God was saying that on the basis of the blood of the lamb, the devout worshipers received grace and peace. They would leave the Sanctuary knowing that they were recipients of grace, and were at peace with God. Today, especially when we have Holy Communion, believers should leave the Sanctuary knowing full well that they are at peace with God by the grace of God through Christ.
This was so fundamental to the faith that Paul made it his salutation in the epistles: Based on the death of Christ Jesus, “Grace and peace to you.”
What makes a place a holy place? Not the shape of the building, not the structure of it. But what makes it a holy place is the fact that the presence of the Lord is there among his people, and their activities in that place witness to the fact that he is there. We learn much of this from the old institutions of Israel. And now that Christ has come all things have been made new. But the old forms and the old spiritual practices have not been done away--they now have their fullest meaning. Our worship should be far greater than Israel’s in the Old Testament because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. And any place we dedicate to the worship and service of him is a special place, a place where the faith is alive and focused. It is a holy place.