WHAT IS A GENUINE SANCTUARY?
HOW HAVE WE MISUSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD THE MEANING OF SANCTUARY?
Did You Know? Historically, churches have been places where fugitives could seek at least temporary protection from the law. In Anglo-Saxon England, churches and churchyards provided 40 days of immunity, and neither the sheriffs nor the army would enter to seize the outlaw. But gradually the right of sanctuary eroded as monarchs no longer feared Church authority beginning with Henry VIII in 1486.
In the 1980s many US churches provided sanctuary to Central American political refugees, and the US government mostly chose not to interfere. Today, wildlife sanctuaries provide refuge for the protected species within its boundaries, and farm-animal sanctuaries rescue livestock from abuse and starvation.
But how has the concept of sanctuary gripped the headlines today as local governments and institutions defy federal laws and claim themselves to be a legal sanctuary?
Let’s consider the origination of the term and its meaning.
The Middle English term of sanctuarie derived from the Anglo-French and Late Latin word, sanctuarium, which likewise grew from the old Latin sanctus, meaning “holy or sacred.”
The first known use of the term sanctuary came in the 14th century, during the early Renaissance era. A time when the Roman Catholic Church dominated the affairs of government, science, the arts, and academia.
As early Church scholars began to translate ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts into Latin, sanctus was used to replace the Old Testament Hebrew terms, qodesh or miqdash, meaning set-apartness or sacred place. Likewise, depending on context, the Hebrew term debyir also was translated as sanctus, though it relayed the idea of a set apart room inside a temple, a holy of holies, where oracles communicated with and for God. For example, Solomon’s building project in 1 Kings 6 (v.5,16,etc.).
Here are some passages where “sanctuary” or its synonyms have replaced the original Hebrew:
You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance— the place, LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established. Exodus 15:17
Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:30
And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place (sanctuary) of the LORD. Joshua 24:26
Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the LORD. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the LORD your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. 2 Chronicles 30:8
They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name. Psalm 74:7 (a post-exile psalm)
He will be a holy place (sanctuary); for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem, he will be a trap and a snare. Isaiah 8:14
I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. Ezekiel 37:26
In fact, the term sanctuary occurs 176X in the NIV OT in place of the original OT Hebrew terms qodesh, miqdash, or debyir.
However, what or who made anything a sanctuary, a holy or sacred place where God dwelt to inspire the hearts, minds, and souls of men?
In the NT, the Greek term hagios carried the meaning of holy or sacred. Saints, holy ones, and Holy Spirit come from the Greek hagios. Greeks used the term naos to infer a temple or shrine that housed a sanctuary, ergo a holy of holies. Just as we today consider a sanctuary a set-aside worship area in a church.
The Greek term hagios denotes a holy place, person or thing 222X in the NT, i.e. Holy Spirit, a holy city, holy things, holy ones (saints), temple/sanctuary, and of course, Holy God.
Even Jesus admonished the misuse of anything holy or sacred. Matt 7:6, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
Again, what is the idea behind the term in the NT? What made a person, place or thing holy, sacred, or set-apart?Or what we now consider consecrated?
There is but one who is Holy, the author and perfecter of all things deemed sacred or holy!
Therefore, who establishes a sanctuary? Man or God?
How did the concept of a sanctuary become morph into being recognized as a safe place, an asylum, or a refuge?
Granted in the OT, there were cities of refuge established as described in Numbers and Joshua, but the Hebrew term was miklat, meaning places that take in – an asylum or refuge, but not a sanctuary. And, if we seek refuge, the OT Hebrew word khasa meant flee seeking protection. Figuratively, confide in, hope in, or trust in, but still not a sanctuary.
Even in the NT, the two passages that deal with the idea of refuge, the Greek word katapheugo also speaks of fleeing for safety.
So how did the Latin term sanctus, later sanctuarium or sanctuaries become associated with the connotation of safety and protection from the law? Let’s begin by considering the notion of the biblical concept of cities of refuge. What purpose did they serve? Did entry into the city of refuge remove the consequences of their sins or guilt?
Cities of refuge were intended to offer protection from hasty acts of blood revenge by angry relatives. However, guilt or innocence still needed to be established by an assembly of elders in the designated refuge city. If determined guilty of murder, death came after a proper course of justice not some act of vengeance. (Ref. Numbers 35; Joshua 20)
But still, this speaks of cities of refuge, not sanctuary cities.
By the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, the idea of finding refuge in a church sanctuary existed, and legal authorities could not pursue a fugitive into a church, as I shared in the opening.
So, where did this non-biblical idea of sanctuary come to be?
The ancient Greeks and Romans established their version of what a sanctuary or sacred place entailed from which later romanticized medieval laws developed. In Greek and Roman society, temples celebrating their gods could harbor runaway slaves and criminals to a certain extent. These early asylums developed under the belief that their god(s) were inviolable and their temples or holy sites shared this consecrated or untouchable aspect. But, these sacred places were not hideaways where fugitives could go to thumb their nose at the authorities. Petitioners seeking sanctuary still had to atone and pay penance for their crimes.
It is widely accepted, the earliest Christians recognized that pagan temples offered sanctuary or a haven for criminals, and they did not want to their piety shown up by their pagan rivals. Thus, Christian churches extended criminals protection as well, hoping that asylum seekers might be converted or offered a chance to repent. In the eyes of the early Church, Holy God should provide a more reliable refuge for the sinner than any pagan god and his or her temple.
As Christianity spread across Europe, the Church’s model for sanctuary protections traveled with it. Their codified and standardized version of offering sanctuary became the process best known today.
For asylum seekers to gain sanctuary, they had to enter a church and wait for an appointed officer of the crown (known as a coroner) to arrive. Once the coroner arrived, the seekers had to confess to their crime, whether they committed it or not, and they were then under the protection of the Church. But, slowly, sanctuary laws were rolled back. The number of eligible crimes was reduced. By 1624, standard sanctuary laws were abolished, making fugitives no safer in a church than they were in the streets.
Let’s take another quick look. Who defined the concept of sanctuary? God or the Church?
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The whole world has been booby-trapped by the devil, and the deadliest trap of all is the religious one. Error never looks so innocent as when it is found in the sanctuary. The farther we push into the sanctuary, the greater becomes the danger of self-deception. The deeply religious man is far more vulnerable than the easygoing fellow who takes his religion lightly. This latter may be deceived, but he is not likely to be self-deceived. Under the pressure of deep spiritual concern, and before his heart has been wholly conquered by the Spirit of God, a man may be driven to try every dodge to save face and preserve a semblance of his old independence. This is always dangerous and if persisted in may prove calamitous.”
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So what do I think about the notion of sanctuary? Here are but two offerings from my 15 years of devotional introspection about what sanctuary means…
Value Works Over Words
Guard your step when you go to the house of God. Better to draw near in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they are ignorant and do wrong. Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few. For dreams result from much work and a fool’s voice from many words. Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 (HCSB)
Over many years I observed people from both the back of the sanctuary as well as eyeing them from the pulpit.
In spite of what most people who regularly attend church want to believe, many arrive each week carrying deeper, personal motivations rather than a desire to merely worship the Lord through joyous melodies and words. They sit dispersed among the regulars who, week in and week out, faithfully return each week to the same pew out of habit, a ritual of ownership etched in stone over the years.
Among those who attend regularly, there are those solely motivated because of the social value of attending church. They eagerly seek an exchange of the latest news and gossip before and after they dutifully bide their time through the worship hour.
Then there are some who are inspired to attend ladened by fears and regret. They seek a soothing message that may mollify the nagging guilt within them that they can’t seem to escape.
Of course, also sprinkled throughout the sanctuary pews are the inevitable attention seekers. The ones who could find their way to the altar blindfolded, and their voices as recognizable as their faces.
There is little doubt; church provides an interesting hodgepodge of people on any given Sunday. I often wonder what God thinks as he looks down upon our stained-glass sanctuaries while he dwells in the only true sanctuary?
Of course, those person(s) in the church who seek attention, hoisting their hands over their heads and voicing their enthusiasm whenever the preacher or worship leader cues the congregation, begs the question. Is God hard of hearing or only responsive to the most animated? Or, are those waving and shouting out only demonstrating how spiritual they want everyone else to believe they are?
Certainly, there are plenty of sincere, God-fearing people filling the pews too, but they’re surrounded by plenty of self-serving, self-focused folks each week. I reckon, in the end, God responds not because of our actions or attitudes on display but the condition of our heart.
For as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us: We all should be careful with our words when praising the God of creation. It is better to say nothing than offer empty, insincere promises and vows.
Sincerity and integrity identify a person’s genuine relationship with God, not animated enthusiasm and verbosity. In fact, God responds the loudest within a sincere, silent heart, found more often in the stillness of our daily quiet times with God.
Humility Builds a Sanctuary
The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are protected. A rich man’s wealth is his fortified city; in his imagination, it is like a high wall. Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but before honor comes humility. Proverbs 18:10-12
Whether at school, at work, the community, or in the church, there are people we meet every day who are in the wall building business. You might even be in that business. Our insecurities demand that we build walls to keep others out. But, why build barriers and walls that keep people out of our lives?
An insecure person constructs walls that isolate themselves from others so others may never know the truth about them. Erecting walls keeps others at a safe distance, so they really can never focus on the weaknesses of the person cowering behind the walls.
However, in reality, these walls are just an illusion meant only to keep the person on the inside from seeing clearly and that insecure person misses out on the benefits of developing genuine relationships. They would rather sever themselves from genuine friendships and the joy of loving one another as God had intended. Their pride justifies their insecurity because they exist solely in a relationship with their “self.” What a sad and lonely existence our pride can cause us to enter into when our fears are allowed to rule over us.
The humble have a high tower they can run into, and the walls of this tower are of God’s doing. This secure place is a refuge, a sanctuary, from the tough times in this life, but God never intends to keep you there. It is where a humble heart can find rest and restoration before confidently re-engaging life and its many awkward but rewarding relationships. It also is big enough for all to enter whenever there’s a need for God’s peace and mercy. This high tower also helps you to see more clearly your place and purpose in life. It helps you focus on what is most important, which is never yourself. It is a place where love resides, and all fear disappears. The only price for entry into this refuge is our self! We must come humbled to receive the security that God offers.
How about you? Are you like the one who builds walls to hide behind out of insecurity and pride of “self,” or do you know the way into God’s high tower refuge where security comes from humility? Which leads to genuine life?
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In my estimation: Sanctuary is found whenever and wherever God dwells and offers unadulterated peace and hope. Otherwise, a sanctuary is just a place or notion to soothe mankind’s guilt-ridden conscience.