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Sanctuary Definition From the Bible

To understand a sanctuary definition, Bible verses and resources must be consulted.

The word sanctuary is a commonly used religious term. For Christians, understanding the definition of sanctuary in the Bible helps to have a deeper appreciation of both God’s Word and God Himself and our relationship with Him.

In the King James Bible the word “sanctuary” is used a total of 132 times. All but four references are found in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word “sanctuary” is used four times and always in the book of Hebrews. Here is a sanctuary definition Bible study.

praying hands in dark church pew

Sanctuary Definition Bible Dictionary

There can be several definitions of a single word, and all are correct. The exact definition depends on the context in which the word is being used. The word sanctuary in the Bible is no different. Here is a definition of the meaning of the sanctuary from a Bible dictionary.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the word “sanctuary” denotes (1) the Holy Land, (2) the temple (3) the tabernacle (4) the holy place, the place of the Presence (5) God’s holy habitation in heaven.

The definitions of the word sanctuary from a Bible dictionary are a good starting point, but to better understand the Biblical definition of sanctuary, the Bible itself needs to be consulted, and the verses which mention the word sanctuary, studied in its context.

Sanctuary Definition Bible Verses

child clutching Bible

In studying the Bible verses that contain the word sanctuary and even the verses that allude to this word, all point to a dwelling place of God. God’s place of dwelling changes through time, and as such, so does the definition of the word “sanctuary”. But God always wants and works through His people to provide a place for Him to reside. Since He is holy, any and every place that He chooses to live is a holy area.

First Mention of the Word Sanctuary

When studying the Bible there is a method or a guide called “the law of first mention”. The reasoning and the application of this study method are for someone to understand a particular word or doctrine more fully, find the first mention of it in Scripture and study that particular passage. The reasoning behind this method is that the first mention in the Bible usually is the clearest presentation. 

Using this study method, the first mention of the word sanctuary is found in: 

Exodus 15:17 “Thou shalt bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O LORD, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established.”

This is also the only place in the Bible where the word “sanctuary” is capitalized.

The capitalization of this word, making this common noun into a proper noun, indicates a specific place. It is also preceded by the article “the” which further indicates an exact place.

Holy Land landscape with coast and water

Some Bible scholars believe that the word “Sanctuary” in this context, means the entire land of Canaan, or rather The Promised Land, the fact that this word is capitalized means that God in His foreknowledge, in having Moses write this particular verse, had a specific place in mind, that He had named.

Here He calls it only “the Sanctuary”. Looking ahead in the Bible to where God’s temple was built, this sanctuary could have been referring to the city of Jerusalem, specifically to what the Bible calls Mount Zion. 

The word “sanctuary” here is from the Hebrew Word – miqdas or miqdash. Translated into English (according to Strong’s Hebrew dictionary) is “a consecrated thing or place, especially, a palace, sanctuary (whether of Jehovah or of idols) or asylum: –chapel, hallowed part, holy place, sanctuary.” 

The Tabernacle — The Sanctuary

The second time the word “sanctuary” is found in the Bible is later on in the same chapter of Exodus.

Exodus 25:8 “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.” (KJV)

God wanted a dwelling place for Himself where He, a holy God, could be near to His sinful people. The holy, sacred area for God to live in was called a sanctuary. But specifically, and sometimes used interchangeably with the word sanctuary, was the structure called the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a tent, a temporary structure, for the presence of God to dwell with His people. The details of the building of the tabernacle are recorded in Exodus chapters 35 and 36.

Exodus 38:27 “And of the hundred talents of silver were cast the sockets of the sanctuary, and the sockets of the vail; an hundred sockets of the hundred talents, a talent for a socket.” (KJV)

In this verse, the word sanctuary is used to refer also to the tabernacle itself. The silver sockets of the tabernacle (here called the sanctuary) were used for the beams that constructed the walls of this sacred dwelling.

Here is another verse where the word sanctuary and tabernacle are used interchangeably: 

Leviticus 4:6 “And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the LORD, before the vail of the sanctuary.” (KJV)

The veil was part of the tabernacle, this curtain served as an inside partition “wall”. 

The word “tabernacle” refers to the physical structure, and the word “sanctuary” has the connotation of the very presence of God.

In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews referred to the Old Testament tabernacle further clarifying that the words tabernacle and sanctuary at times referred to the same thing.

Hebrews 9:1&2 “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary.” (KJV)

The Furnishings of the Tabernacle

The earthly tabernacle that Moses fashioned for the worship of God was patterned after the tabernacle in heaven. In the heavenly sanctuary where Moses was privileged to observe, there were heavenly things that God instructed him to copy for the earthly tabernacle:

Exodus 25:40 “And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount.” (KJV)

In this sacred place were sacred things to be used in worshiping God. These included the courtyard, outside of the tabernacle proper, but still part of the sanctuary. There was the brazen altar for various types of offerings, and the laver which was a bowl of water used by the priests to wash before they entered the tabernacle itself.

The structure of the tabernacle was divided into two parts. The first part of the inside of the tabernacle was called the holy place. In this sacred place was the candlestick, the table of shewbread, and the altar of incense. 

Picture thanks to: Jeremy Park, Bible-Scenes.com

A veil separated the holy place from the most sacred part of the tabernacle called the Holy of Holies. It was there in the Holy of Holies where God resided, on the mercy seat.

Picture thanks to: Jeremy Park, Bible-Scenes.com

Once a year, on the day of atonement, the high priest would bring the innocent blood of animals to place on the mercy seat. The mercy seat was the lid of the ark of the covenant. Inside the ark of the covenant was Aaron’s rod that budded, the Ten Commandments, and a golden pot of manna. 

The Shekel of the Sanctuary

The phrase “the shekel of the sanctuary” occurs 25 times in the Bible. A shekel was a silver coin, and it was used both as a measure of weight and currency in Bible times. 

This phrase indicates that within the sanctuary, in the area that was set apart of the presence of God, the area of the tabernacle, there was a single shekel kept. This special coin was the standard measure with which was compared all other weights. This standard unit established the correct weight for all of the various transactions among the Israelites. 

The fact that this standard was stored in the sanctuary also gives the idea that the sanctuary also served some governmental function. This would only seem proper. Since God delegated government to man, man was supposed to submit to God even in his governmental affairs.

The Promised Land – The Sanctuary

Map of the Promised Land

One of the definitions of the word sanctuary is the Promised Land, which was the land of Canaan which became the land of Israel. The psalmist seems to refer to this land in

Psalm 78:54 “And he brought them to the border of his sanctuary, even to this mountain, which his right hand had purchased.” (KJV).

This concept is repeated in

Psalm 114:2 – “Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.” (KJV)

The Temple — The Sanctuary

The tabernacle was a tent. After the children of Israel settled themselves into the Promised Land, King David wanted a permanent structure as a dwelling place for God. In instructing both his son Solomon, who would be the next king, and the princes of Israel, he said,

“Now set your heart and your soul to seek the LORD your God; arise therefore, and build ye the sanctuary of the LORD God, to bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and the holy vessels of God, into the house that is to be built to the name of the LORD.” – 1 Chronicles 22:19(KJV) 

Like the tabernacle, the temple also referred to the physical structure – a house “for the sanctuary” that is a structure to be constructed, for the dwelling place of God. This distinction between the two words is shown in 1 Chronicles 28:10:

“Take heed now; for the LORD hath chosen thee to build an house for the sanctuary.” (KJV)

King Solomon honored his father’s wishes and built the temple for God in the city of Jerusalem. However, the temple that King Solomon initially built was eventually destroyed and rebuilt.

The prophet Daniel told of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem which occurred several decades after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ when he said,

“And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.” – Daniel 9:26 (KJV)

God is a Sanctuary for His People

One of the definitions of sanctuary is a place of safety.

Isaiah 8:14 promises, “And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (KJV)

open hands reaching out against landscape

The context of this verse is that God Himself will be a place of safety for those who are afraid to displease Him. But for those of His people who worship false gods, He will punish them, and they will not find Him to be “safe”.

God promised to be “as a little sanctuary” even though He allowed His people to be carried away captive to foreign lands because they worshiped idols instead of Him. 

“Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come. – Ezekiel 11:16 (KJV)

An Unholy Sanctuary

A sanctuary is a place reserved for deities, both for the one true and living God and also for the worship of idols. Those who worship idols would go to their sanctuary, also referred to as “high places”, places for idol worshippers to implore help from their false deities but without avail. This is proclaimed in this verse:

Isaiah 16:12 And it shall come to pass, when it is seen that Moab is weary on the high place, that he shall come to his sanctuary to pray; but he shall not prevail. (KJV)

The Temple and the Antichrist

The Bible says that the Jewish temple will be rebuilt with the idea to worship God, but the antichrist will sit there. After Christ Jesus has victory over the antichrist, then the temple has to be cleansed.

Daniel 8:13&14 “Then I heard one saint speaking, and another saint said unto that certain saint which spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, and the transgression of desolation, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot? And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” (KJV)

God’s Sanctuary Today

But in this present time, God must have a sanctuary.

His Children’s’ Hearts

Using the definition of a place where God resides, His sanctuary today is the hearts of every Christian believer through the Person of the Holy Spirit. Paul alluded to the sanctuary of our hearts when he said in:

woman holding cross and red heart

2 Colossians 1:21&22 “Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” (KJV)

With God’s Spirit living in our hearts, all Christians are part of Christ’s body according to

Ephesians 5:30 “For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” (KJV)

A Church Building

Another definition of the word sanctuary is “house of God” or simply the church building; a place to worship God. Just as God’s people in the past went to the sanctuaries of the tabernacle or the temple to worship, today Christians are told to assemble themselves.

church sanctuary with pews

They usually do so in a structure commonly called a church. Paul wrote to Timothy instructions about how to behave in this present physical sanctuary, the “house of God” used for the worship of God.

1 Timothy 3:15 “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (KJV)

The church structure itself has divisions. There may be a kitchen area, dining area, bathroom(s), closets, and other rooms.

But the main part of a church is usually called “the sanctuary”. This particular room of the entire structure is set apart for the sole purpose of worshipping God. A sanctuary is the most sacred part of any religious building.

The Future Sanctuary

While currently there is no one single physical sanctuary for God, He promises that during His thousand-year reign, He will have one and that it will be glorious according to:

Isaiah 60:13 – “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.” (KJV)

This sanctuary in the future will have a wall to separate the earthly dwelling of Christ Jesus from the profane or common area as is foretold in:

Ezekiel 42:20: “He measured it by the four sides: it had a wall round about, five hundred reeds long, and five hundred broad, to make a separation between the sanctuary and the profane place.” (KJV)

Peter in one of his sermons, spoke of Christ coming and rebuilding His sanctuary, the temple, called “the tabernacle of David”. “After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up.” – Acts 15:16 (KJV)

The Heavenly Sanctuary

Just as our bodies house the Holy Spirit, and are a sanctuary for Him, after we die, and our earthly bodies are useless, God has given us a promise of a heavenly sanctuary, a new body, a glorified body in heaven.

sun rays through clouds

2 Corinthians 5:1 “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (KJV)

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In heaven not only will we have new glorified bodies, but our new personal sanctuary will be one with God in His heavenly dwelling place, His heavenly sanctuary will someday be the possession of His people as well.

If you enjoyed learning about the sanctuary definition Bible study check out the article about dispensations.

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