The New Birth and the Sanctuary's Three Curtains

by Tim Rumsey March 10, 2019

The New Birth and the Sanctuary's Three Curtains

Lynlee Boemer was born twice. Literally. When she was just 23 weeks old in her mother’s womb, doctors discovered that she had sacrococcygeal teratoma, a large tumor growing near her tailbone. While many babies have been safely born with this rare condition, Lynlee’s tumor quickly became nearly as large as her tiny body, leading doctors at Texas Children’s Hospital to attempt a difficult and dangerous surgery. After opening up her mother’s uterus, surgeons removed Lynlee, opened the amniotic sack, and removed the tumor. About 20 minutes after her “first birth,” Lynlee was returned to the womb and her mom’s uterus was sewn back together. Twelve weeks later, on June 6, 2016, Lynlee Hope was born again via Cesarean section. As amazing as Lynlee's second birth was, however, the Bible reveals an even more incredible miracle that God says we must experience in order to have eternal life.

Born Again

One dark night, Jesus explained the necessity of the new birth to Nicodemus, one of Israel's most respected leaders. Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:3,5).
Christ's statement undoubtedly shocked Nicodemus. After all, he had been educated by Israel's brightest teachers, he held a position of honor and influence, and he was wealthy. Nicodemus himself was a respected Pharisee and religious leader. In spite of all this, however, he came to see Jesus "by night" (John 3:2), and his refusal to openly come to the Savior revealed the true condition of this Pharisee's heart. Later in their conversation, Jesus said, "This is the condemnation [or judgment], that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). In his “natural birth” state, Nicodemus preferred and felt more comfortable spiritually in the darkness. But, like a baby leaving the darkness of the womb, Nicodemus needed to be “born again” and start living spiritually in the light.

Jesus revealed to this timid yet honest-hearted seeker the single most important experience that any person can have—the experience of the new birth. The physical birth of a baby is a very real experience, and cannot, of course, be obtained vicariously. In the same way, spiritual rebirth must be experienced personally, for it is the complete and total transformation of the "old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts," into the "new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:24).

Jesus chose His words carefully when speaking with Nicodemus, and so we must read them carefully. In John 3:3 Jesus explained, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Moments later, Jesus repeated His statement, but with a slight change of words. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). We are about to discover that these two similar-sounding statements together reveal the complete process of salvation revealed in the sanctuary. Christ's simple explanation of the gospel shows the way home that every sinner must travel from the darkness of sin into the presence of God.  But to understand where this path leads, we must first remember where God intended humanity's spiritual home to be.

Out of Eden

At creation, "God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed" (Genesis 2:8). Humanity's original home, physically and spiritually, was in the Garden of Eden. This amazing natural paradise was to be their home for as long as they remained lovingly obedient to Him.

The Bible reveals a number of interesting details about Eden's design and structure, and when these details are compared with the sanctuary's Most Holy Place (MHP), it becomes clear that God intended these two places to represent the same thing:

  • Eden had a gate that faced eastward (Genesis 2:8; 3:24), and the MHP had one curtain on the east side.
  • Two trees stood in the middle  of Eden (Genesis 2:9), and two cherubim were placed in the center of the MHP (Exodus 25:19,20).
  • In Eden the divine law was given in connection with the two trees (Genesis 2:17), just as the Ten Commandments were placed between the two cherubim inside the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:21).
  • In Eden, Adam and Eve "were visited by angels, and were granted communion with their Maker, with no obscuring veil between."[1] In the MHP, God's presence was revealed above the mercy seat between the two cherubim (Exodus 25:22).
  • The Garden of Eden and the sanctuary's Most Holy Place both represented humanity's spiritual home, and that home was next to God's throne. Like the Most Holy Place, "Eden...was heaven in miniature."[2]  God's intent was that Adam and Eve, and every human being, live in His presence.

When Adam and Eve sinned and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were no longer permitted to dwell in Eden. The Bible says that God "drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24). When Adam and Eve left Eden, they departed through the gate on the east side of the garden. This, of course, was also the only direction to exit the sanctuary's Most Holy Place, through the curtain leading from God's direct presence into the holy place. Spiritually speaking, then, to head "east" is to leave God's presence, and to go "west" is to come into His presence.[3]

Humanity's eastward migration continued as sin strengthened its hold on the lost race. When Cain refused to repent for the murder of his brother Abel, God sent him east toward the land of Nod. Like his parents, Cain found his sin leading him eastward, farther and farther from the Garden of Eden, earth’s miniature representation of heaven’s Most Holy Place. And humanity’s migration eastward has not stopped. After the flood, rebellious descendants of Noah again travelled east to the land of Shinar and began building the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-4). Like a snowball gathering speed as it rolls downhill, sin has led the human family spiritually eastward with a momentum that cannot be stopped. Victims of the power of sin, we wandered out of Eden, out of the Most Holy Place, until we are lost in the darkness, until we can no longer even see the kingdom of God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 59:10,

We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.

The Way Home

Left to ourselves and our own sinful hearts, we, like Nicodemus, will inevitably choose the darkness as we slide ever further from God. No wonder Jesus said, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). To repent literally means "to think differently"[4] and "involves a turning with contrition from sin to God."[5] In other words, repentance is the act of turning around and heading back westward, toward Eden, toward the Most Holy Place, toward God.

The Bible leaves no doubt as to where God wants to bring us through faith in Jesus Christ: "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the vail; Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made a high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Hebrews 6:19,20).
As God’s power leads us back to Him, we simply follow Jesus Christ, the “Forerunner” leading the way “within the veil.” Only one path led through the sanctuary into the Most Holy Place, and that was through three curtains representing three steps in the miracle of the new birth.

The Sanctuary's Three Curtains

The First Curtain

Jesus explained the first step in the new birth experience this way: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3, emphasis added). Notice Christ's words carefully. The first step of the new birth experience results in seeing the kingdom of God. What does this mean?

Imagine that you are a guilty sinner in the camp of Israel and that you are approaching the sanctuary with your sacrificial animal. Hidden behind the white linen curtain surrounding the courtyard sits the tabernacle containing the Holy Place and Most Holy Place. Even though this tent stands taller than the outer curtain, by the time you are standing just outside of the east-facing gate, you cannot see it at all because the curtain is obstructing your view. At this point, you must pass through the first curtain before you can see the tabernacle.  When you do pass through this curtain, you find yourself standing directly in front of the altar of burnt offering.

This altar represented the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29), and it lay directly behind the sanctuary's first, eastern-most gate or curtain. God’s first work in the miracle of salvation is to lead us to accept the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Everything hinges on this. As Jesus said, “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). The tabernacle came fully into view only after going through the outer gate and passing the altar of burnt offering. Similarly, the kingdom of God remains a hidden mystery until we accept God's gift of life through Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus first told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The Second Curtain

The journey of salvation does not end with a mere acknowledgment of Christ's sacrificial death, however. We must respond to the incredible love of God, and that response is revealed in the second step of the new birth experience. Jesus explained this second step this way: "Except a man be born of water…he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Again, notice Christ's words carefully. While the first step of the new birth results in seeing the kingdom of God, in the second step we are invited to enter that kingdom through water. How do we do this?

Immediately in front of the second curtain, or gate, stood the basin of water. Every priest who entered the tabernacle was required to wash first,[6] and this symbolized the spiritual cleansing represented by baptism (Romans 6:3-5). This is why Jesus next told Nicodemus that he must “be born of water” in order to enter the kingdom of God. Many Christians believe that an expression of accepting Christ is sufficient for salvation, and even mark the date on their calendars when this occurred as the day that they were saved. But Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). There is nothing magical about immersion in water, of course, but Christ's point is clear: the new birth experience is just that, an experience, and if it stops at a verbal or mental assent to truth, we will in the end be lost.  We must pass through the second curtain and allow God to begin washing sin away from our lives.

"Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:25,26).

The Third Curtain

Jesus explained the final step in the new birth experience this way: "Except a man be born of…the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5, emphasis added). Immediately in front of the third curtain and the Most Holy Place stood the altar of incense, from which smoke rose and wafted over the curtain into the Most Holy Place. This smoke represented the Holy Spirit and His power to carry the believer all the way into the very presence of God, for "There is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:1).

In the Most Holy Place comes victory over sin, for it was here that the High Priest sprinkled blood on the mercy seat every year on the Day of Atonement. "For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you," declared God, "to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30). The lesson for us is astounding—through faith in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, every Christian may experience victory over sin and temptation! Christ has promised that He will give this victory to those who follow Him by faith through the third curtain into the Most Holy Place. "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Perhaps this seems impossible in your life. Left to yourself, it would be. However, God sent Jesus to "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21), and "his people" includes you if you have claimed Him as your Savior and Lord, and have allowed Him to perform the miracle of the new birth in your life. As the book The Desire of Ages explains,

When the Spirit of God takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness, and the countenance reflects the light of heaven. No one sees the hand that lifts the burden, or beholds the light descend from the courts above. The blessing comes when by faith the soul surrenders itself to God. Then that power which no human eye can see creates a new being in the image of God.[7]

Like little baby Lynlee, you can be born a second time, without the tumor of sin coiled around your life. But unlike Lynlee, whose miracle birth and life will nevertheless end some day in death, you can have eternal life through Jesus Christ! "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

[1]  Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 50.

[2]  Ellen White, Review and Herald (February 24, 1874), par. 8.

[3]  Other Bible passages that illustrate this principle include Ezekiel 8:16, where the prophet sees 25 apostate men facing the rising sun with their backs toward the temple and the MHP; Revelation 7:2, where an angel comes from the east and heads westward with the seal of God; and Revelation 16:12, where "the kings of the east" are gathered to fight against God.

[4]  "Repent," Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.

[5]  F. F. Bruce. The Acts of the Apostles [Greek Text Commentary], London: Tyndale, 1952, p. 97.

[6]  In the Old Testament, only priests were allowed to enter the tabernacle (Hebrews 9:6). However, under the New Covenant all Christians have the privilege as members of "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) to approach God's throne through faith in Christ (4:14-16).  

[7]  Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, p. 173.

Tim Rumsey
Tim Rumsey


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