Entering the Holy Place: An Old Testament Model for New Testament Worship




But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.” Psalm 5:7

Ready and Willing

God longs for relationship with his people. This is no more evident than when his presence is revealed through the veil of our hearts. Psalm 5:7 sets the tone for this yearning fellowship between God and mankind. The Lord of Glory has a love for us which is both steadfast and overflowing. And this is what the psalmist also desires. He longs to enter into Yahweh’s house and reciprocate the gracious love that he has been given. He bow’s down toward the holy temple in reverential fear and admiration of his King and Lord.

This scripture, among many, show us what deeply committed relationships, in general, look and feel like. And in the course of entering into any truly committed relationship, we realize that they occur in stages. As we move closer to someone’s heart, uniting our life with theirs, we are taking steps in knowing that person better. And when it comes to the corporate gathering for worship, our meeting with God also happens in steps. It is a heavenly love affair.

Just like any other of our relationships, as we continue in our personal lives to spend time with the Lord, our adoration and love for Jesus deepens; and so too does our worship of him. And as we gather for corporate worship, we joyfully come together to share in honorable adoration, entering his courts with praise; past the veil and into his presence. The New Testament worshiper shares something in common with the Old Testament worshiper. The difference is, one took place in a physical structure, the temple; and the other takes place in the new temple, the inner heart. There is a brief story in John chapter 4, of an encounter that Jesus had with a woman on this very subject. She asked Jesus where the true place of worship was located. His answer surprised her, when instead of naming a specific location, he informed her that it was in the human heart. He said to her,

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

In the Old Covenant system of worship, the high priest entered through a curtain or veil to access the Most Holy Place; where the glory of God was made manifest. In a sense, when the priest lifted the veil to enter the holy places he came into the very presence of God. It is interesting to note, that this same idea is found in many cultures, where the bride’s face is usually veiled. When the groom lifts the veil, the bride is no longer hidden. Another “lifting of the veil” occurrence happened when Christ died on the cross. The veil in the temple was torn in two. Mark 15:37-39 reads,

“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”.

It appears that the Heavenly Father was lifting the veil that hid his presence. The veil that had for so long prevented His betrothed from seeing, more fully, all his resplendent glory was taken away. The imagery couldn’t be more profound.

Now that this veil has been removed the Lord desires for us to experience him in unhindered fellowship. But like most marriages, which may begin with a date, there are steps from the proposal to that ceremonial kiss. Our relationship with the Lord as loving worshipers follows a similar pattern. A pattern which I hope will become more evident as we continue to draw these comparisons. When an Israelite attended the temple ceremony, it was to be more than a ritual or the fulfillment of a religious duty. The temple service was a place which was to demonstrate the eager movement of one lover’s heart towards another. King David knew this, and was one such God lover. He couldn’t wait to get to the temple. He looked forward, with great excitement to enter God’s house. Again, hear his words, “But Iwill enter your house. I will bow down…” His heart was willing and desirous to be in the presence of the Lord.

But what is it that would compel a person in this way, to throw themselves humbly and lovingly before the Almighty?

It may be many things, but the single most important thing was to be in the Heavenly embrace.

So how is this Old Testament love affair, which takes place in God’s house, mirror for us as New Testament worshipers?

A closer look at the Old Testament temple may reveal some insights.

The Shadow and the Form

Since I am comparing worship from the Old Testament structural temple with the New Testament temple of the heart it will be helpful to first have a biblical point of view on these two covenants. The book of Hebrews gives us an explanation by using the terms ‘shadow’ and ‘forms’. In brief, the book of Hebrews elucidates the Old Testament sacrificial system. It explains how the old patterns of Judaism were giving way to the new. The Judaism that once defined their worship system was in the throes of change, and the covenant of old was passing away. The writer says,

“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Hebrews 8:13

It was vanishing away because just like a shadow, when the noonday sun is at full light, the real form that produced the shadow is revealed. On this, the author states,

”For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.” Hebrews 10:1-2

The priests had served in a ritual system that was a shadow of the true heavenly form. An example of an Old Testament shadow would be the sacrificial animal- the lamb. Now, the lamb was real enough, but it served to represent a greater reality. The lamb was only a shadow of the true heavenly form, which was Jesus Christ. When Jesus first appeared at the Jordan river, John the Baptist knew that the shadow of the Old Testament sacrifice was giving way to the new when he said,

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29

But for the Old Testament priests, the light had not yet come; the veil had not been lifted; so all they had was a pattern, a shadowy representation of the real. Once more the scriptures enlighten us,

 “…since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” Hebrews 8:4-6

The priests up until the dawning of Christianity were still, so to speak, operating in the dark. But with the coming of Christ, the veil was being lifted. A person’s access to God was being made possible through the new covenant; a better covenant, signed in the blood of the Savior. Even the priests were shadows or types, their role waiting to be fully realized in the New Testament believer. The apostle Peter understood the passing away of this shadow and the coming of the new when he said to Christians,

“you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

In fact, from this passage, Peter expresses three shadows that have now become New Testament realities.

1) Living Stones: This directly relates the stones of the Old Testament structural temple to New Testament Christians. Believers in Christ are said to be “living stones” which together make up the edifice of God’s new spiritual house. The church, therefore; is not a physical building, it is the followers of Jesus Christ, world-wide, who are the church.

2) Holy Priesthood: The new priesthood are the living stones. The former priesthood was an elect group of men, whose qualification as priests came through Aaron. The new priesthood is made up of all Christians who are qualified as priests through the New High Priest Jesus Christ.

3) Sacrifices: The Old Testament animal sacrifices were the shadow of the true sacrifices which now are spiritual sacrifices. Sacrifices which are now dedicated on the altar of one’s heart.

All these are shadows of something real. My goal in this study is to see how the stages of entering into the Old Testament temple is a kind of shadow that is also present for the New Testament worshiper. The stages that the priest took to enter the structural Holy of Holies, resembles how we as New Testament priests enter into worship in the spiritual temple of one’s heart.

Now that we have laid this preliminary foundation, let’s look at what this means for us and the privilege we have to enter into the place of worship. As Christians, let’s examine, from the shadows and types, what it means to enter his house, and how we can take steps which may move us further into His presence. If your like me, and even though as New Testament worshipers we have immediate access to God, and are invited to confidently draw near to the throne of grace, it is often with much difficulty that we strive to enter the Most Holy Place. But it is ultimately where we all would like to be in worship. Our deep desire is to sense the aroma of His presence, drench ourselves in the love of God, and commune with Him so that our hearts, that is our temples, will be full of his glory!

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4: 14-16

Court of the Gentiles

The temple precincts are very telling allegories, and present us with a beautiful portrayal of entering into and moving toward the place of intimate worship with God. It is from this Old Testament archetype, that I would like to draw some comparisons for today’s New Testament believer. Herod’s temple (so called because he was the Jewish king that undertook its reconstruction) consisted of four main areas (see the above diagram). One must pass through each court before reaching the Most Holy Place. Here are the areas, beginning with the furthest and ending at the Most Holy Place.

  • The outer court or the Court of the Gentiles
  • The Court of the Women
  • The inner court or the Court of the Israelites
  • The Temple proper which areas included: a. The Court of the Priests b. The Holy Place c. The Most Holy Place


temple modelThe outer court, or the court of the Gentiles was that area where anyone, Jew or Gentile could gather in religious reflection or discussion. Alfred Edersheim in his written work ‘The Temple: It’s Ministry and Services’ says, “These halls or porches around the Court of the Gentiles must have been most convenient places for friendly or religious intercourse — for meetings or discussions.” [1] This outer court was separated by a wall, and no Gentile could go any further than this designated locale. They were not allowed inside the inner courts. It was the lowest point of the Sanctuary, but as the worshiper moved closer to the Most Holy Place, they started to ascend.

In the Christian worship community this outer court is still present. However, it is not a designated location but it is more a spiritual place in one’s heart. For many Christians this is the first step in entering into worship. And for some, it is the only step. Their desire is not to enter into worship, much less move into intimate relationship with God, but it is just a place to meet others, to socialize and exchange ideas on matters of life, religion and faith in general. While this certainly has a place in our worship, it should not end there. It is good to be in fellowship with other believer’s by praying together and encouraging each other. But that is the first step of many which would lead us in ascending the throne of our Father. If we have a heart attitude that does not want to go any further in our worship experience, we remain outside- spiritually. We are walled off, in a heartfelt way to the inner courts of praise, sacrifice, and communion with God. It is comfortable for some to remain in the outer court- the court of the Gentiles, because it doesn’t require anything of us: no sacrifice, no praise, and no heart to heart relationship with God. One can go to church, mingle about, and go through the motions, but all the while the heart has remained in the outer court.

Court of the Women

The next stage brings us closer to God’s presence. The Court of the Women. In the Old Testament this area was where the men and women of Israel gathered. Gentiles could not enter under penalty of death. Here, the Levite’s would stand on the circular steps, known as the Nicanor Gate, to sing and play music, while Israel joined in praise and thanksgiving. [2] From this Old Testament pattern we see this analogy: It is only God’s people who enter through the gates and into the temple precinct itself. Those who are not in covenant with God could not enter inside the temple to celebrate the worship of Yahweh. The same is true for today. Only those who are in covenant with God through Jesus Christ can enter into the inner courts of the heart. For it is the temple of the heart where true spiritual worship happens.

womenCourtThe Jews in the Old Testament would dance, sing, and shout unto God. They participated as God’s chosen people with the Levitical choir and musicians, where there ensued a festive homage of joy and thanksgiving for the Maker of heaven and earth. The analogy is eye opening. Non-believer’s can surely go to church, but they can never enter into the spiritual inner courts of holy worship.

In the temple of our hearts, Christians alone enter into this second level of worship. Some sing, some dance, some praise; all of which brings the worshiper in closer fellowship with God. But there are some believer’s who are content with this second level of worship and go no further. Indeed, it is an important element of worship, for it is a place to affirm belief in God and join with the saints, but the next level requires something more. If we long to worship in spirit and in truth, by having our hearts filled with the Spirit of His glory, it will cost us something- sacrifice.

Before we examine the next stage of worship, allow me to point out something else that is happening at the same time. As we looked at the first step towards worship, we found ourselves at the outer courts. Here was where the largest gathering of people took place. It included everyone, male and female, as well as both Jews and Gentiles (believer’s and non-believer’s). But as one entered the court of the women, the group begins to diminish in number. Only Jewish men and women were allowed to enter the inner courts. This narrowing of numbers will continue through every stage of worship. This pattern is still seen today. Many will get to church, but it is only a few which will enter fully into worship. The other observation is that up to this point the focus is mainly upon the worshiper: their meeting and discussion of spiritual things outside the temple (church), and the celebration (in the court of the women) with others. As we move on from here to the Holy of Holies we will again see a reduction in worshipers, and a new focus; one which directs us away from ourselves towards God.

Court of the Israelites

And now we come to what may be the hardest for us. The Court of the Israelites. Why, because it requires sacrifice. Here we enter where in the Old Testament only the men could enter. This area was designated for Israelite men and Priests. Once again, reducing the number of worshipers allowed to come close to the Most Holy Place. Here we observe a movement further within the temple of our own hearts, eyes shifting from looking inward to looking upward. God becomes the focus, as we are made mindful of what he requires for relationship with him. We come as a sacrifice, ready to offer ourselves to Him. But the sacrifices we offer are spiritual. The Psalmist, even while operating in the old ministry knew this. He tells us that,

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

And in Psalm 116:17, “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord”.  

This is where the soul is rekindled and the heart is purified- in the fires of sacrifice. And this is where it gets messy. The smell and stain of blood are profuse in the Court of the Israelites/Priests. And like that picture, our sins and trespasses against a Holy God are a stench in his nostrils and an offense in His sight. Here, at the sacrificial altars of worship you and I are called to come and die.

sacrificeJesus likewise made this analogy, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Matthew 16:24-25.

“Take up his cross”. This is a voluntary requirement for anyone who would follow Jesus. We are called to die to our old selves that what may remain is a purified life, one separated to living for God by following Jesus Christ. We can never follow Christ, wholeheartedly, or gain entrance into the presence of God without this dying to ourselves. In the Old Testament, when the sacrificial animal was burned, it was completely consumed. Sadly, this is where many stall in worship. Some dear portion of the flesh is not wanting to be given to the fires of spiritual purification. We are not willing to bring to the flames of judgment some heart entrenched sin. We love our sin and reject the death sentence of the cross. So we can mix with people in the outer courts, and sing praises with the saints in the court of the women; but entering into the courts of sacrifice is for some, a thing most dreadful. And like Abraham of old, you must bring your own wood, and place yourself on the altar; and like Elijah pray that the purifying fires of God will lick up every last ounce of you, leaving nothing but the aroma of Christ in your soul.

Now the benefit for doing so is absolutely amazing and life changing. To do so is to experience the presence and fullness of God in our worship and in our lives.  Many Christians want to follow Jesus but sadly, many do not want to die on the altar of sacrifice. But this is the only way to enter the next stage of worship- the Most Holy Place, where God manifests himself. Those who seek to worship God at this final level cannot go around the sacrificial altar.

Entering the Most Holy Place

We have reached the last stage- The Holy of Holies. The area in the Old Testament where God’s presence, like a cloud, filled the room and hovered over the ark of the covenant. Only one man, a priest, was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. As we have progressed from one level of worship to the next, we have gone from a throng of gatherers with the numbers narrowing to a single worshiper. And like this temple analogy reveals, few make it this far. Many will leave a Sunday service with hearts broken but still barren, with spirit’s purged but empty. It is this final stage that fills up the soul. We’ve had fellowship, we’ve praised, and we’ve sacrificed; now we are in the place to have our entire being filled with Him. Here is where we find the heavenly embrace, the affirmation of love, the divine kiss to the heart of his beloved creature.

Many come to church, many sing and praise, and many repentantly sacrifice, but few enter into the Holy Place. You and I as priests have been given the gracious privilege to enter into the Holy of Holies. Within our Christ transformed heart a manWorshipingholy union takes place transcending all other natural relationships. It is upon the holy ground of the heart where the Kabhodh [3] or glory of God is manifest. The seat of His throne (represented in the Old Testament by the Ark of the Covenant), is within our hearts, this is where he dwells and communes.

“…the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark.” (2 Samuel 6:2).

This is where the presence of the Almighty is spiritually manifest in all beauty, majesty and splendor. Perhaps you have known that experience. It is those times when God has been tangible to our inner spirit, where we know that we have had a meaningful and loving encounter with our Creator. They are moments that have brought us to our knees, moved us to tears, awed us, humbled us, shook us, shocked us, transformed us; all the while knowing that we are treasured and immensely loved.

As New Testament worshiper’s we are invited to come boldly to “the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). Let us then, who have come to know “the abundance of his steadfast love”, approach in reverential fear and love to adore the One who cherishes us and whose heart awaits our companionship and devotion.

I hope that this walk through the temple will be an encouragement.  May you joyfully and fearfully come to know, all the more, the awesome wonder that attends all those who desire to enter the place which is the Holiest of all.

 Psalm 100:4 “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!”

Copyright © Steve Covarrubias 10/2013


[1] Alfred Edersheim from The Temple: It’s Ministries and Service. (PC Study Bible formatted electronic database by Biblesoft, Inc.)

[2] Professor Barry Smith from The Jerusalem Temple and the New Testament. Crandall University. (www.abu.nb.ca)

[3] Kabhodh (Hebrew) or Glory. In the Old Testament and in Sirach: The fundamental idea of this root seems to be “weight,” “heaviness,” and hence in its primary uses it conveys the idea of some external, physical manifestation of dignity, preeminence or majesty. Most important of all, it describes the form in which Jehovah (Yahweh) reveals Himself or is the sign and manifestation of His presence. (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database by Biblesoft, Inc.)

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