Word Study #173 — “Sanctuary”

Here is another word that is frequently used in contemporary Christian circles in ways that bear no resemblance whatever to its New Testament antecedents. This study should be undertaken in tandem with a review of #32, “Holy”, because the Greek word for which “sanctuary” is the traditional translation, is simply the neuter form, hagion, of the adjective hagios, upon which that essay was based. The masculine and feminine forms refer to people, and the neuter to places or things. However, hagion is never used of the gathering place of the faithful – or of anyone else. That designation belongs to the word “synagogue”.

Hagion, translated four times as “sanctuary” and three times as “holy place”, appears only in the letter to the Hebrews (8:2, 9:1, 9:2, 9:12, 9:24, 9:25, 13:11), and refers exclusively to that portion of the Old Covenant’s tabernacle or temple area which could only be entered once a year, and then only by the high priest! There is absolutely no precedent for applying such a “reverential” designation to the principal assembly room of any “house of worship.”

Neither is there any New Testament application of the word to any person or group, regardless of its appearance in a number of saccharine choruses commonly designated “praise songs”. I am sure the folks who created them, and who repeat them interminably, all mean well – but they simply have never put forth the effort to understand what they are saying! Waxing sentimental about a few statements of God’s promises to “dwell” in / with / among his people (Rom.8:11, II Cor.6:16, II Tim.1:14) – an entirely different word and concept (See #82) – they substitute the idea of a place where only a high priest was allowed to go??? Come on, folks! That just doesn’t fit!!!

More commendable, but still linguistically in error, is the occasionally popular idea of a place of worship as a “sanctuary” or a location of safety and refuge for society’s “victims du jour” – whether the conscientious objector of the Vietnam era or the undocumented immigrant of the early 21st century . Patterned, I suppose, after the “cities of refuge” provided by the Old Testament law (Num.35), the concept is an excellent one, and fully in harmony with New Testament principles of providing shelter for those in need. In fact, I suspect that the primary reason for the absence of such instructions in the New Testament was that the faithful were more likely to need that sort of protection than to be in a position to offer it, (“Refuge” is nowhere to be found in the New Testament text). The idea is good – but “sanctuary” it is not.

By all means, celebrate the living presence of the Lord in and among his people!
Share that celebration with any who need a place of protection, shelter, or care!
But do so with the joyful realization that the idea of a secluded, walled-off “sanctuary” is a relic of the past!
No longer is access restricted to the upper echelons of hierarchy, or the lonely, introspective, self-centered contemplation of mystics.
In Jesus, “the veil is taken away!” – torn to shreds! – in the glory of his triumph!
ALL of his people are not only eligible but welcomed into the courts of our King!

Thanks be to God!

2 Responses to Word Study #173 — “Sanctuary”

  1. dwmtractor says:

    Gotta push back a little for this one, Mom. Not from the biblical standpoint, to be sure, because I agree that the biblical concept of a “holy place” in the place of worship really ended with the ripping of the temple curtain on Good Friday. Rather, with the notion of providing refuge. I think that probably stems not only from the cities of refuge, but also the tradition–whether God-ordained or not, it was practiced–of people seeking refuge in the temple (see for example 1 Kings 1:50-53).

    I think the symbolism that the church — and by extension and tradition, even “church property” — is, like embassies in international law, territory that’s off-limits to the secular authority, is a tradition that still could have value, as I said in this blog post a couple years back. That it’s founded more on human tradition and not so much on Biblical command, doesn’t bother me too badly since the concept — that the people of God provide refuge to all comers — is certainly Christ-like.

    Which is not in any way at all, to validate the sloppy ways modern Evangelicals tend to use the word…

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    I think you missed the next-to-last paragraph. I take no issue with the provision of shelter: in fact, I see it as essential to faithfulness. My point is simply that “sanctuary” is the wrong word for it.
    I very much like your analogy to the provision of shelter and safety in an embassy of another jurisdiction. That is an excellent image of one function of Kingdom “colonies”.
    It is the image of a place restricted to designated hierarchy that I reject as antithetical to the welcoming nature of the Kingdom.

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