The Book of Hebrews obviously has an important place in understanding early Christian thinking about the temple. G. K. Beale in The Temple and the Church’s Mission make this statement about it:
“Hebrews inform us of something that was not clear in Exodus: the pattern that Moses saw on Sinai was apparently the true heavenly tabernacle that was to come later with Christ and descend and eventually fill the whole earth. It was this eschatological sanctuary of which Moses was to make a small earthly model.”
This is what gives rise to Hebrew’s language about the temple, the priests, and the sacrifices being a “shadow” of the real thing. They were a figurative picture of something real. Beale talks about the difference between something that is real and something that is physical. Some interpreters don’t get that the temple being physical did not make it real. But Hebrews 9:11 shows that the real sanctuary is not the one in this creation made by human hands.
He uses this to take a swipe at those who have a last-days scenario where the temple gets rebuilt. That would be going back to the shadow, the copy. It would be turning away from the real.
Beale does not understand Hebrews and the New Testament in general to have spiritualized the Temple. His insight is that the thing that is figurative and spiritualized is the earthly temple and sacrificial system, while the thing that is real is what God did in Christ. This is not just in Hebrews. He points to Matthew 12:6: “something greater than the temple is here.”
Hebrews also says that the body of Jesus is the true veil at the entrance to the holy place (Hebrews 10:19). Beale connects this to the passion-story event of the tearing of the temple curtain.
That Christ is several things–temple, priest, veil–may amount to more than mixed metaphors. All these things, as Beale argued earlier, can represent the cosmos. This ties in with the conception in Paul that in Christ there is a new creation.
So Beale’s big idea is that the end-time temple is the body of Jesus extending to take in the whole church and even the universe. Thus, he interprets Hebrews 12:22 ff. There the author piles up phrases: Mount Zion, the city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the assembly, the congregation of the first born. These point to the ultimate redeemed community.
There is also the notion in Hebrews 12:26-29 that the last things include a “shaking” of creation so that only what is unshakable will remain. Beale show Haggai as the background for this.
6 Moreover, the Lord who rules over all says: ‘In just a little while I will once again shake the sky and the earth, the sea and the dry ground. 7 I will also shake up all the nations, and they will offer their treasures; then I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord who rules over all. (Haggai 2:6-7 NET Bible).
Haggai concludes that there will remain a temple with a splendor greater than that of former times (v. 9). So Hebrews sees not the physical temple but a new and true temple as something unshakable that shall remain. (Although, Haggai’s literal meaning surely is that when the nations offer up their treasures that will allow the physical temple to be filled with more silver and gold.)
I am grateful to G. K. Beale for his interpretation and insights. But, like many things about Hebrews, I am not sure. We don’t know who wrote the book. We don’t know its occasion. Whoever composed the superscription did not know either. “To the Hebrews” is not a specific thing like “to the Philippians”. So the occasion of Hebrews has been lost since the second century at least.
The ideas seem to have some affinity with other Jewish writings of the time. Thus the contrast between the real and the literal also occurs in Philo. The writing off of the Jerusalem temple has parallels at Qumran and in other noncomformist Jewish writings.
A verse like Matthew 12:6 gives Hebrews a link with other New Testament works. But I am wary of trying to make Hebrews jibe with the rest of the New Testament. It is a very unique book.