“Suddenly, just as the executioner’s assistants were about to carry out their orders, [Quasimodo] climbed the balustrade of the gallery and clutched the rope with his hands, knees and feet. The crowd saw him slide down the façade like a raindrop on a windowpane, run over to the executioner’s assistants with the swiftness of a cat, fell them both with his enormous fists, take the gypsy girl in one arm as easily as a child picking up a doll and rush into the church, holding her above his head and shouting in a formidable voice, “Sanctuary!”
Within the walls of Notre Dame the prisoner was inviolable. The cathedral was a recognized place of refuge.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Victor Hugo – 1831
Victor Hugo way back in 1831 understood what a church sanctuary was as he wrote his famous, classical novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. In fact, back in 1831 all of society recognized with reverence what a sanctuary within a church represented. Even in my earliest memories of attending church, the place of worship within the church was always referred to as “the sanctuary”. When entering the sanctuary, I remember there was a quietness and reverence seen and felt. It was inviolable from the rest of the world and all the troubles of the world. There were people sitting in silent prayer, preparing their own hearts and minds for worshiping Almighty God as well as praying for the pastor and participants in the worship service. There was an attitude of worship, of reverence, for there was a realization of being in the presence of God; holy, majestic, and righteous God. It was a solemn place of meeting; man with God and God, through the Holy Spirit, with man.
So what is a sanctuary within a church and why is it important to know?A “sanctuary” is a sacred place regarded as holy. It is a place consecrated or set apart to God. It is a place worthy of or regarded with reverence. It is a place of refuge, free from harm. Matthew 18:20 captures this clearly (Jesus speaking), “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” Don’t miss the fact that Christ is there! Why has the church sanctuary down through the ages been looked upon with such great reverence? A survey of Scripture, God’s Holy Word, is helpful.
In ;Exodus 15: 17-18, after Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea, Moses declares, “You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance – the place, O Lord, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established. The Lord will reign for ever and ever.” Moses and the Israelites recognized the sovereignty and power of God as Pharaoh’s army was defeated. And they recognized the Lord’s desire for a dwelling place among the people, that being the sanctuary.
The Lord’s desire for a sanctuary and dwelling place is further seen in ;Exodus 25: 8 where the Lord says, “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” It is important to see that the Lord had a desire for a special meeting place, a holy place, a place of refuge, and a place of reverence.
It is also important to see that the passage cited in Exodus 15 preceded the giving of the Law while the passage in Exodus 25 was given after the Ten Commandments and was expressed as a part of the Laws and regulations that were to be followed. What is the point? The matter of the sanctuary, the desire of God for a meeting place with His people and the attitude of reverence for the sanctuary is not a matter of following the Law or a matter of legalism. The Lord wants our fellowship and desires for us to meet with him.
Three passages from the Psalms are also helpful. In Psalm 63: 1-2, David writes, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” I appreciate the way that David, who became a king yet was often referred to as just a shepherd boy, so eloquently and simply captures in a few words what we all feel and experience in life. As we face family difficulties, financial difficulties, career difficulties, emotional difficulties, and even spiritual difficulties, it seems that no matter where we turn we are faced with “a dry and weary land where there is no water”. So often our bodies, our minds, our emotions are just plain worn out. But it is precisely at these moments of stress and exhaustion that we begin earnestly to seek the Lord; to thirst for His presence. And as we enter into “the sanctuary”, whether a quiet room at home or the center of worship at a church, we enter with awe and reverence for we seek the face of God. As David stated, in our desire to fellowship with the Lord, it is in the sanctuary that we behold “your power and your glory”.
In Psalm 77: 13, the Psalmist writes, “Your way, O God, is in the sanctuary; who is as great a God as our God?” What a precious, encouraging passage. Do you want to “see” and have a better understanding of the way of the Lord? Meet Him in the sanctuary. Meet there with Almighty God and approach His throne of grace with confidence, with reverence. In so doing, you will find that, from the hand of the Lord, you receive mercy and you find grace to help in your time of family, financial, career, emotional and spiritual difficulties. You find the living water of God in the midst of your dry and weary land.
Lastly in Psalm 96: 6, David writes, “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in His sanctuary.” Clearly an attitude of reverence is in order as we step into the sanctuary to worship and seek the face of God.
Is this attitude of reverence what is seen in today’s churches as people come to worship? Let me first, with great clarity, state that these comments are not about whether a “traditional” service is more appropriate than a “contemporary” service. Quite frankly, I find that whole discussion pointless and perhaps disgusting. The worship service is not about me; it is not about us. Nor is it about the form that is chosen in which to worship. The purpose of the worship service is to meet with God along with others of like precious faith. It is not about making me or anyone else comfortable in a church setting.
But let us get back to the question at hand. As we enter the sanctuary of our respective churches, what is the atmosphere and what do you see and hear? Perhaps discussions of the Saturday college games and whether the coaches met with your approval. Perhaps there are discussions going on about lunch plans. Perhaps the youth are discussing the fun experienced during the weekend. In many situations, even the church orchestra or praise band are tuning their instruments for the soon to begin “performance”. If he stepped into our churches today, Victor Hugo might just wonder what we all are thinking!! No reverence for God? No quiet prayer and reflection as we approach the throne of grace? No awareness that others may be greatly hurting and needing a touch from the Lord on this most holy day and in this holy place? No sense that God is there? As we today look around the sanctuary, where is the silence of reverence? Where is the sense of a sacred meeting with God? Why does there seem to be this “buzz” of activity going on in the sanctuary until the worship leader loudly proclaims “Welcome to our service today!”
The Lord’s own words to Ezekiel found in ;Ezekiel 22: 26 are well worth grasping. In this passage, the Lord is lamenting the sins of the leaders and the people. The Lord says to Ezekiel in verse 26, “Her priests do violence to my laws and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.” In this passage, what does the word “profane” mean? To “profane my holy things” means to look upon them as merely secular and not sacred things; to show no respect for these holy and sacred things; and to show irreverence toward the things of God. In this passage, what does the word “common” mean? To “not distinguish between the holy and the common” means to draw no difference between the sacred things of God and those things which are ordinary, low, vulgar, course, offensive and indecent. Some of our pre-service discussions within the sanctuary fall into these categories.
As believers in the saving, redemptive work of God through the Lord Jesus Christ, we must draw clear lines of distinction between the holy and the common. We must not profane the name of the Lord in anything we do or say. The sanctuary is a holy meeting place for us to meet God. It is the place of reverence and worship. It is the place to set aside the important and not so important matters of the world. And again, with great clarity, this attitude of reverence is not about “legalism”, which for some is simply code for demanding freedom to do one’s own thing. This is about the worship of God and having reverence for His name. The sanctuary is where we meet with God and God meets with us. It is a time of rejoicing, praise, and worship, remembering all that God has done for us as unworthy sinners saved by His grace and mercy. And this rejoicing, praise, and worship should all be done in an attitude of awe and reverence and of prayer and thankfulness.
Psalm 150 is perhaps the most instructive Psalm for us to consider:
“Praise the Lord.
Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in his mighty heavens.
Praise Him for his acts of power; praise Him for His surpassing greatness.
Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet; praise Him with the harp and lyre,
praise Him with the tambourine and dancing; praise Him with the strings and flute,
praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.”
Let us “praise the Lord” with an attitude of awe, with an attitude of reverence in the sanctuary.