The Heavenly Temple

The “Throne Room” of God

The vision of the future revealed in Revelation describes many dramatic events within the content of the seals, trumpets, and bowls. However, running throughout that narrative there is another recurring theme that is easy to overlook. Scattered among the events, we see several references to a place in heaven where the throne of God is seen by John. One who studies these references can easily observe that this “throne room” in heaven has much in common with the temple of Israel on earth. On multiple occasions, Revelation even refers to this place as the temple.

Some passages in Hebrews help us understand this heavenly place:

Heb 9:11 — But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation

Heb 9:23-2423Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.

From these passages, it is evident that the throne room in heaven is essentially a heavenly temple. It resembles the earthly temple because the earthly temple is a mere copy of the things in this heavenly temple. In fact, the things in the earthly temple are temporal symbols of the permanent realities of the heavenly temple.

The above passages in Hebrews 9 refer to this heavenly temple in the context of Christ’s sacrifice for sins, which he accomplished 2000 years ago on the cross. Why is the book of Revelation making references to this heavenly temple again in the context of the end times? 

Please note that Hebrews 9 begins to answer this question itself by mentioning a second coming of Christ:

Heb 9:27-28 —  27And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.

That is, Rev 9:28 says that there shall be a second appearance of Christ in the heavenly temple that is different from the first appearance mentioned in Heb 9:11. He will again come for the sake of salvation, but this time it will be for salvation without reference to sin. He already provided salvation from sin at His first coming by bearing the sins of His people. His second appearance will again be for the salvation of His faithful followers (those who eagerly await Him). However, this time it will not be by bearing their sin, but by destroying the sinful world which persecutes them.

To see how this second appearance involves the heavenly temple, we will review each of the Heavenly Temple references found in Revelation. I believe that they all harmonize with each other in a manner consistent with the overall understanding of Revelation presented in Revelation Overview. These references are discussed below.

The Altar of the Heavenly Temple

Revelation 6:9-119When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained;

10and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

11And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.

This mention of an “altar” in verse 9 is the first reference to a temple-related object. It mentions “the” altar as if there is only one, and yet we know that the earthly temple had two altars:

  1. The altar of burnt offering (outside the temple in the court of priests), where sacrifices were slain.
  2. The golden altar of incense (inside the temple, but in front of the curtain, just outside the Holy of Holies) which was used daily.

John said “the” altar because the context identifies which altar it must be. The altar mentioned in Rev 6:9 is associated with people who were slain for their testimony to God, which uniquely identifies that altar as the altar of sacrifice.

This outer altar of the temple was where sacrifices were slain and offered up to the Lord, and in the context of the fifth seal, this altar is connected with people who have been martyred for the sake of the word of God. In other words, their lives were sacrifices offered up to the Lord on this symbolic altar. Also, their souls are depicted as being under the altar, which makes sense when you consider that this is where the blood of the sacrifice would flow (Lev 4:7), and that the life is in the blood (Lev 17:11).

It is important to note that the fifth seal goes on in verse 11 to say that more saints must be killed during the “little while” of the end times. In terms of the symbolism being used here, this means that there will be a final period in which more saints must be sacrificed on this same altar for their testimony to God’s word. This final period can only be the future great tribulation.

Furthermore, the fifth seal indicates (in verse 10) that after this future period of martyrdom is over, God will avenge the blood of the martyrs on those who dwell on the earth. We should therefore expect to see the future sacrifice described in the fifth seal followed God’s vengeance against the earth, and of course that is exactly what we do see in the sixth seal.

The Future Sacrifice on the Altar in Heaven

Revelation 8:3-5 3Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.

4The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.

5Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

This passage in chapter 8 constitutes the introduction to the trumpets, and it is the most detailed reference to temple-related objects and activity in Revelation. It begins with an angel who seems to be doing the same sort of things that were done by the priests of Israel. We may refer to this angel as the “priestly angel“.

In verse 3, this priestly angel stands before the altar with the golden censer (i.e. fire pan) and verse 5 says that he had fire from the altar. The altar from which fire was taken can only be the altar of burnt offering outside the temple, implying that a sacrifice has taken place. This is the same altar that was referenced in connection with the fifth seal in Rev 6:9.

In verse 4, this sacrifice is connected with saints, just as the fifth seal altar was a sacrifice of saints. The symbolism of these two references to the same altar in the end times is apparent:

  • The fifth seal indicates that a final group of saints must be killed as a sacrifice upon this altar.
    It shall be followed by wrath upon the earth (seen in sixth seal).
  • The trumpets begin with a priestly angel handling fire, after making a sacrifice upon this altar.
    It concludes with wrath upon the earth (depicted by fire hurled to the earth in verse 5).

That is, these two references describe a sacrifice on the same altar and at the same point in time, which means that they refer the the same sacrifice. Specifically, in both cases the sacrifice refers to great tribulation, which is the final period of time in which many saints will be martyred for holding to the testimony of God. Without a doubt, the prayers of saints will be rising to God during the tribulation, as described in verse 4.

Recall from Revelation Overview that the fifth seal is effectively a summary of the 42 months of great tribulation and the martyrdom of saints, while the first six trumpet events give more details about things that occur during the great tribulation. Thus, the fifth seal event chronologically overlaps the first six trumpet events. Symbolically speaking, the sacrifice depicted here in the introduction to the trumpets is a more detailed account of that “little while” sacrifice mentioned in the fifth seal.

The fifth seal, which summarized the great tribulation, is followed by the sixth seal, which summarizes the wrath of God upon the earth. Since this priestly angel’s altar is describing the same events as the fifth seal altar, we should expect that it too will conclude with a description of God’s wrath upon the earth (corresponding to the sixth seal). Indeed, it does, as we see the priestly angel hurling fire toward the earth. This is discussed further below.

The Final Day of Atonement

Having the understanding that this priestly angel’s sacrifice represents the martyrdom of saints during the great tribulation helps us understand what this heavenly temple activity is all about.

Verse 3a says “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar“. As discussed above, this priestly angel must have been presiding over a sacrifice on the altar of burnt offering outside the temple. Significantly, this angel is holding a golden censer, which is the fire pan that Jewish priests used only on the Day of Atonement(1). Furthermore, the activities of this angel closely correspond with the priestly work on that special day.

At this point it would be helpful to review what took place in the temple on the Day of Atonement. This is one of the holiest days to the Jews, and it was the only day of the year when the high priest could enter the innermost part of the temple, called the Holy of Holies.

This is a summary of the steps the priest would take:

  1. The priest would sacrifice a bull on the outer altar.
  2. He would gather the following things to take into the temple to the inner altar:
    (a) A vessel containing some of the blood from the bull,
    (b) A golden censer (fire pan) holding some burning coals from the outer altar,
    (c) Some incense.
  3. Inside the temple, he would go beyond the veil (or curtain), to enter the Holy of holies.
  4. He would add the incense to the hot coals in the censer (filling the room with fragrant smoke).
  5. He would approach the ark of the covenant, which represents the presence of God, and sprinkle the blood of the bull on the mercy-seat (which is the cover for the ark).

These Day of Atonement steps may be related to the symbolism of the priestly angel as follows:

♦ We may say that step (1) has been completed since the angel is coming from the altar of sacrifice with the censer (the fire pan used at the altar of burnt offering) mentioned in verse 3.

♦ We see that step (2) has also been completed because the priestly angel is seen holding the golden censer and incense.

♦ Verse 3b continues by adding: “much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne“. The angel has incense and is getting ready to burn it in the censer, implying that he has taken step (3). Unlike the earthly priest who approached the ark that symbolizes God’s presence, this priestly angel approaches the throne on which God is actually present.

This incense is to be offered with the prayers of all the saints. This is symbolically appropriate because the rising smoke of the incense is emblematic of prayers rising to God. The association between incense and prayer is nothing new (Ps 141:2, Luke 1:9-10; Rev 5:8).

♦ Verse 4 then says: “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand“. The priestly angel burns the incense, causing the smoke (representing the prayers of the saints) to rise up to God, which is step (4).

Given our understanding that the incense (prayers of saints) is burning in the fire from the sacrifice (the martyrdom of saints) that was slain on the outer altar, we can understand these to be the fervent prayers of suffering saints during the great tribulation. We can also understand that these prayers will reach God, and He will respond to them.

♦ Verse 5 then adds something unusual: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth“. This may seem surprising because it actually does not correspond to step (5) as we might expect. The Jewish priest would have sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice upon the ark of the covenant, but this priestly angel hurls fire to the earth!

But here, we must remember what the sprinkling of blood on the ark symbolizes: It represents God taking upon Himself the punishment for the sins of the people, and thus providing for their atonement through the blood of Christ’s sacrifice (the Hebrew word for “mercy seat” actually means “atonement“). This unusual action by the priestly angel indicates that God has reached a point in which He shall no longer provide atonement for sinners. This corresponds to the promised day of His wrath.

Verse 5 implies that the priestly angel must have returned to the outer altar of burnt offering (because that is where the fire would be), and he refilled the censer. The angel then hurled the fire to the earth, which was done in response to the prayers of the saints that went up to God. Therefore, the same fire with which the saints were sacrificed shall be hurled down to the earth. Symbolically, this means that the same deadly persecution that killed the saints of God will be returned to the wicked people on earth in great strength (Rev 18:6, 8). By this, God will deliver His promised vengeance on behalf of His saints (Rev 6:10, Rev 18:20, 24).

This judgment of the wicked and God’s wrath corresponds with the bowl judgments. During the bowls, God’s wrath is hurled upon the earth with terrifying force to repay the wicked for their deeds (Rev 18:6). The time of God’s long-suffering and patience must end sometime, and at that time, He shall provide wrath, and not atonement, for the wickedness of the world (Num 14:18, Rom 2:4,5, 2 Pet 3:9,10).

On this final Day of Atonement, there will certainly be atonement made for the sins of the people on earth, but they will atone for it themselves, because they rejected the atonement offered by God (Heb 2:3, Heb 10:29). Please notice the symbolism at work here: The wrath represented by this final Day of Atonement comes at the conclusion of the trumpet period, just as the Jewish Day of Atonement comes at the conclusion of the Jewish Feast of Trumpets.

The Wrath symbolized by the priestly angel

I have proposed that when this priestly angel hurled fire from the outer altar to the earth (in verse 5), he was symbolizing the bowl judgments of God’s wrath. This idea receives support from something we see in Rev 14:18-19 (in the context of God’s wrath):

18Then another angel, the one who has power over fire, came out from the altar; and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, ‘Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, because her grapes are ripe.”  19So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.’.

This describes an angel who has power over fire and who had been at the altar. This angel must be the same priestly angel who was handling fire at the altar in chapter 8. However, here in Rev 14, it says that this angel has come out from the altar to initiate God’s wrath coming to earth (symbolized by harvesting the grapes of wrath with a sharp sickle). This confirms the idea that hurling fire to the earth symbolizes God’s wrath, which is contained in the bowl judgments (Rev 15:1, 7, 16:1).

Observe that the actions of the priestly angel, described at the beginning of the trumpets, are thus explained in a manner consistent with priestly duties, and consistent with the entire period covered by the trumpets. Specifically, this period includes both the great tribulation (the first six trumpet events) and the bowl judgments (summarized by the seventh trumpet event), as explained in Revelation Overview.

The Ark of the Covenant Seen in Heaven

Revelation 11:19Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.

This verse comes as part of the seventh trumpet event, which is itself a summary of the bowl events. The bowl events signal the wrath of God and the return of Christ as king on earth. When Christ returns, the first thing he will do is fight on behalf of his people Israel, which is something God has promised (see The Final Restoration of Israel).

Knowing this helps us understand the reference to the ark of the covenant. The ark of His covenant signifies two things:

  1. God remembering His covenant relationship with Israel,
  2. His presence on earth.

During the bowl events, (1) God will remember His covenant to protect Israel, and (2) Christ, the Son of God will appear on the earth in person.

As we see in the seventh bowl event, the bowls conclude with a great earthquake and a great hailstorm (Rev 16:18, 21).

The Open Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven

Revelation 15:5-85After this I looked and in heaven the temple, that is, the tabernacle of the Testimony, was opened. 6Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests. 7Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. 8And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.

The context for this passage is the onset of the bowl judgments of God’s wrath. Here, we see that the “tabernacle of the Testimony” is opened. This part of the tabernacle corresponds to the Holy of Holies, and significantly we see that it is open.

You may recall that the Holy of Holies was normally closed by a veil, but this veil was torn open when Christ completed his sacrifice on the cross to atone for our sins (Matt 27:50-51). At that time, the opening of the tabernacle meant that Christ’s atonement gave open access to God’s grace, for those who trust Christ (Heb 10:19-20).

However, in this Revelation 15 passage, we find that the opened tabernacle seems to mean something else to those who reject Christ and the atonement that he offered. For them, the open tabernacle means open access to God’s wrath, which will come in the bowl events that follow.

The Voice From the Temple in Heaven

Revelation 16:1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.

This announces the beginning of God’s wrath.

Revelation 16:17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!”

This announces that this seventh (and final) bowl event shall constitute the completion of God’s wrath, which will conclude with the return of Christ to earth.

It’s not clear whose voice this is, but seeing that it speaks of God in the third person (in 16:1), I believe it’s best to assume this is an angel, and quite possibly that priestly angel who was working in the heavenly temple (Rev 8:3). The voice explains to the reader that God’s wrath is completed within the bowl judgments.

The Final Temple in the Kingdom of God

Revelation 21:22-23 22I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the earthly temple is merely a copy of the heavenly temple, and it only symbolizes the presence of God.

This verse in chapter 21 describes a time God when shall dwell among men in reality. There is no need for the symbolic copy on earth when we have the actual reality of God’s presence on earth. To look at in another way, we could say that the heavenly temple will have come to earth.

Footnotes

(1) The Golden Censer on the Day of Atonement

The books of Moses actually do not mention a “golden censer“. However, we do see it mentioned in the New Testament (Heb 9:4 KJV). Also, the Jewish historian Josephus mentioned the golden censer (Antiquities. l. 3. c. 8. section 3). The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 also supports the assertion that a golden censer was used on the Day of Atonement.

Christians should understand that the books of Moses in the Bible do not contain everything that Moses taught. Some things were passed along in the “oral Torah” (some of which later was incorporated into the Talmud). For example, the books of Moses do not mention the names of Pharaoh’s magicians who mimicked Moses, and yet their names were evidently known because Paul mentioned them (Jannes and Jambres) in 2 Tim 3:8. Possibly, the matter of using a golden censer on the Day of Atonement is another example of a detail that was known to the Jews, but not recorded in the books of Moses.

One should also realize that most everything in the Holy of Holies was golden or covered with gold. Therefore, it only stands to reason that a special golden censer would be used on this special occasion in which the high priest carries a censer into the Holy of Holies.

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