To truly understand the earthly sanctuary we need to first understand the reason for its existence. Meaning: why did God decide to "let them make me a sanctuary?" The verse gives the answer, "… that I may dwell among them: (Exodus 25:8). It has always been God's desire to dwell among His created beings. To say that the Sanctuary is a teaching tool, and ignoring the fact that God wanted to dwell among Israel, is to miss the point that God is love. To say that the sanctuary was the way in which the people could reach out to God is missing the point that it was God who asked Moses to build it; in other words, it was actually God's way of reaching out to Israel. Even before this sanctuary was built, Christ lived among the angels as an angel. God had met with Adam and Eve in the garden. Enoch walked with God. And, God met with Abraham face to face.
Let's take a closer look on Enoch: Enoch learned without the sanctuary about God. Among the antediluvians was one young man who "walked with God" (Gen. 5:24). God took Him by the hand and Enoch went for a walk with God. "By faith" Enoch bore a "testimony" to his generation "that he pleased God" (Heb. 11:5). Enoch did not resist God and permitted Him to purify his life of sin and thus God was able to reveal the deeper meaning of the sanctuary truth and cleanse him of all known and unknown sin so that "he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him." Here was one person before the Flood who comprehended the "the breadth, and length, and depth, and height" of "the love of Christ, ... filled with all the fulness of God" (Eph. 3:18, 19).
Abraham learned the Gospel from God himself, without the sanctuary. God's everlasting covenant given to Abraham pointed him to the heavenly sanctuary for salvation and he believed the promise. Specifically Abraham believed in the gospel of Christ as God proclaimed it to him. [Galatians 3: 8] The Sacrifice for sinners was so vividly proclaimed by God to Abraham that when asked to "sacrifice" his son Isaac on the altar, he was motivated by Divine love to give his only true son. [Heb. 11:17, 18] The source of agape is the heavenly sanctuary (Early Writings, p. 55). When God evangelized Abraham with the gospel it was thorough and complete (Galatians 3: 14; Romans 5: 5). He revealed to Abraham what was in heaven, the sanctuary, so that he could share with God as much as a human could, the sacrificial love of God.
This demonstrates that there was no necessity for an earthly sanctuary for a large part of earth's history. For some 2,200 years, from creation until Mt. Sinai, there was no earthly sanctuary, but there was a real Temple residence for God in heaven. It was not until Israel made their old covenant promise, "all that the Lord hath spoken, will we do" (Ex. 19:8) that out of necessity God initiated the construction of an earthly tabernacle. Motivated by their own self-sufficiency to obey the commandments, ancient Israel made their vain pledge to keep their part of the bargain and that was the old covenant. God never asked them to promise him anything. He simply proclaimed the good news promise to them as he had done with their father Abraham. The only appropriate response would have been for them to believe God's promise just as Abraham did. Then God's Divine love would have been written in their souls.
But their self-confident pledge was the great sin of unbelief. Paul writes: "Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19). The root cause of "transgressions" is unbelief. Evidently there was a great sin committed by Israel at Mt. Sinai which necessitated the emphasizing of the law of God in the format of the Ten Commandments written by God's own finger on tables of stone. Since the people would not simply believe God's promise so that He might write His laws in their hearts and minds, He was obliged to write them on rocks which were placed in a box, the Ark of the Covenant, which was put in the tabernacle.
God wanted to abide in their lives, but through unbelief they sent Him to dwell in a "motel room."
Now what God would have taught them Himself, as He taught Enoch, Abraham and Moses, He taught through the sanctuary and its services. Did they learn? Some did. And, we should point out that according to Ellen White it was through the sanctuary service that Christ learned about Himself as the paschal lamb. And, so now we are to learn about the plan of redemption through learning about the sanctuary and its services. It was through understanding the earthly sanctuary that we learn about what is happening in the heavenly one.
The actual structure is full of meaning. Nothing was left to chance. Everything from the hooks to the curtains, from the cups to the Ark of the Covenant, the materials used and the colors are reference to Christ and the plan of redemption. There too many details to discuss here. Suffice it to say, one more time: they are all a reference to Christ and the plan of redemption.
In Psalm 27:4, David boldly identifies his single-minded goal in life, his one great request: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" (NIV). The "house of the Lord" is another term for the sanctuary. David's single-minded quest was focused upon the sanctuary! In Psalm 27, he summarizes the threefold experience he wished to have in the sanctuary. Verse 4 gives two facets of this experience: "to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire [after truth] in his temple" (NKJV). (The Hebrew word translated as "inquire," baqar, refers to careful examination of evidence in order to determine the truth of a matter.) Toward the end of the psalm (in the verse exactly paralleling verse 4), David pinpoints the third aspect of the sanctuary experience that he longs to have: "to see the goodness of the Lord" (vs. 13).
God institutes a series of services in which the people would come to the Sanctuary to seek and inquire of God. Ellen White says,
"The typical service was the connecting link between God and Israel. The sacrificial offerings were designed to prefigure the sacrifice of Christ, and thus to preserve in the hearts of the people an unwavering faith in the Redeemer to come. Hence, in order that the Lord might accept their sacrifices, and continue His presence with them, and, on the other hand, that the people might have a correct knowledge of the plan of salvation, and a right understanding of their duty, it was of the utmost importance that holiness of heart and purity of life, reverence for God, and strict obedience to His requirements, should be maintained by all connected with the sanctuary."—Ellen G. White Comments, The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 1010.
In Patriarchs and Prophets Ellen White reiterates the same concept in different words,
"The most important part of the daily ministration was the service performed in behalf of individuals. The repentant sinner brought his offering to the door of the tabernacle, and, placing his hand upon the victim's head, confessed his sins, thus in figure transferring them from himself to the innocent sacrifice. By his own hand the animal was then slain, and the blood was carried by the priest into the holy place and sprinkled before the veil, behind which was the ark containing the law that the sinner had transgressed. By this ceremony the sin was, through the blood, transferred in figure to the sanctuary."—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 354.
If the Sin was transferred to the Sanctuary, then the sinner no longer has it. The sinner is freed from the Sin. The sinner leaves the sanctuary with assurance of God's love, grace and forgiveness. He leaves the sanctuary with a heartfelt appreciation for what God has done for Him. He leaves the sanctuary with God in his heart.