And There Was Gossip in Heaven
Waging war with wicked words
The heavenly sanctuary and cosmic conflict are dual foci of the Bible’s grand metanarrative. In the conflict, and against God’s sanctuary, Satan’s attacks are initiated with, spearheaded by, and continually dependent on gossip.
War and Sanctuary—the Beginning
The first site of cosmic controversy is God’s heavenly sanctuary, where Michael must confront the dragon. The dragon’s title “accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10) 1 probably alludes to the trial of a malicious witness at the sanctuary, as described in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. The saints overcome him “by the blood of the Lamb”—the sanctuary sacrificial animal par excellence.
Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 explicitly and emphatically link the start of the cosmic struggle to God’s sanctuary. Higher critical scholarship once persuaded me that these passages made no reference to Satan or the origin of evil. I later learned that the traditional Adventist interpretation of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 was standard throughout Christian history until the rise of historical criticism at the time of the Enlightenment. More important, I have found fresh and compelling exegetical evidence that Isaiah and Ezekiel were indeed referring to Satan in these passages.
José Bertolucci has shown how in each passage there is a movement from the local, historical realm of earthly kings to the heavenly supernatural realm describing Lucifer/Satan and the rise of the great controversy. 2 My own study has disclosed this conceptual shift in Ezekiel 28—from earthly “prince” (Hebrew nagîd, the king of Tyre, verses 1-10) to cosmic “king” (melek, the supernatural ruler of Tyre, Satan himself, verses 11-19), whose judgment as fallen cherub comes at the climactic center of the whole book. The origin of evil in Lucifer the covering cherub is solidly supported from Scripture.
These portraits of the first cosmic battle are intricately linked with the heavenly sanctuary, and suffused with sanctuary imagery. Ezekiel 28:14 introduces the antagonist as “the anointed cherub who covers.” In the light of the parallel with its earthly sanctuary counterpart this language ushers us into the Holy of Holies of the heavenly sanctuary, “the holy mountain of God.” Isaiah 14:13 calls it the “mount of the congregation”—implying the original worship function of the sanctuary before sin. The heavenly sanctuary, on the holy mountain, was the location of God’s throne where unfallen beings assembled to worship Him.
It was there, in heaven’s Holy of Holies, that Lucifer first tainted the universe with sin. Ezekiel 28:16 states that he did an abundance of “trading” (Hebrew rekullah). Ezekiel draws on a verb that signifies going from person to person dealing in goods or in gossip. Unexplained pride and jealousy led Lucifer to slander God’s character, misrepresenting Him as unfair and autocratic.3Eventually he openly revolted against his humble Overlord. The great war had begun, a cosmic war over worship that started at the place of worship—the celestial sanctuary.
Cast out to this earth, as Revelation 12 also depicts, Lucifer “defiled [his] sanctuaries by the multitude of [his] iniquities” (Eze. 28:18). In a twofold battle strategy he both attacks God and His loyal sanctuary worshippers, and operates rival, counterfeit sanctuaries.
Gossip and War in Eden
Scripture opens with Lucifer already fallen, lurking in Eden. Using a serpent, he instigates on earth the same moral conflict he started in the heavenly sanctuary. His location at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is no coincidence.
The language of Genesis 1 and 2 points toward the Garden of Eden as the earthly counterpart of the heavenly sanctuary. The following table displays important insights on Eden as sanctuary, derived from patterns of other sanctuary construction:
We could list many more similarities. But it seems clear that Satan’s assault on Adam and Eve occurs at a place that is the Holy of Holies of the earthly sanctuary, “the midst of the garden” (Gen. 2:9). 4 His location is consistent with his behavior in the heavenly sanctuary. So is his strategy, slandering God as arbitrary and manipulative. His gossip wins over Adam and Eve, and the great controversy enters human existence.
Outside the Garden
Genesis 3:15 both predicts extended conflict and promises ultimate victory through the woman’s sinless Seed, who would voluntarily die to save humanity even as He crushed the serpent’s head. This prediction connects the controversy with sanctuary ritual through God’s clothing Adam and Eve with skins—implying the sacrifice of animals (verse 21). Instead of their inadequate fig leaf clothing, God covers them with the robes of a substitute. The blood of an innocent victim is shed instead of theirs. This intimation of the Messiah’s substitutionary sacrifice is the start of an explanation to Adam and Eve that answers the enemy’s gossip about God’s character. It also explains how God’s throne room, the center of the universe, the Holy of Holies, the place of highest worship, has become the locus of the sacrificial system. The site of original rebellion is the site of ultimate restoration.
In their sinful state Adam and Eve are no longer able to meet with God face to face in the garden. The garden gate becomes the new place of worship. And there, as before, the great controversy rages—again over the issue of worship. Infused with Lucifer’s pride and with gossip about God, Cain will not worship as God prescribes. His rebellion, like Lucifer’s, leads to violence, even murder. The battle rages in the story of Cain and Abel: the issue is true worship, and the battlefield is the place of worship, the sanctuary.
Rival Sanctuaries Everywhere
A brief review of Satan’s continuingly defiant challenge may include Leviticus 16, high point of the Hebrew sanctuary rituals that contrasts Yahweh and Azazel, protagonist and antagonist in the cosmic drama; or Job 1 and 2, featuring the adversary scoffing in the divine assembly (Job 1:6; 2:1); or Zechariah, where Satan as malicious witness accuses Joshua in a sanctuary setting (Zech. 3). Throughout salvation history the counterfeit challenges the true—by frontal attack, by distortion, or through separate, rival sanctuaries that often remarkably resembled God’s sanctuary designs, but with two conspicuous differences.
In layout other ancient Near Eastern sanctuaries gave worshippers direct access into the deity’s presence in the Holy of Holies. Yahweh’s sanctuaries restricted such access to one high priestly visit per year, underscoring a stark difference in theology. Pagan sanctuaries had neither the sense of God’s total transcendence nor that of humans’ inherent defilement.
|Feature in Eden||known correspondence|
||wilderness sanctuary, God among them [betok] –Exod. 25:8|
||Israel’s camp—Deut. 23:14 [only other biblical instance]|
||high priest’s garb—Exod. 25:7; 28:9, 17-20, etc.|
||work of Levites, priests in the sanctuary—Num. 3:7, 8; 18:3-7—‘abad and shamar|
with Israel in the wilderness:
The ritual of the sacrifice highlights a second major difference. While pagan sanctuaries used animal sacrifices to appease the deity, Yahweh Himself gave the sacrifices of Israel’s sanctuary (“I have given it to you” [Lev. 17:11]), to propitiate His own wrath. These sacrifices pointed forward to God’s self-sacrificing gift of the Lamb—His Son—to atone for the sins of the world.
Thus Satan’s counterfeit sanctuaries continued his gossip against God by distorting two essential features that revealed the heart of God’s character and the true nature of worship—Yahweh’s holiness in distinction to human sinfulness, and Yahweh’s covenant love in providing for a substitute and mediator to bridge the gap between His holiness and human sinfulness.
Calvary was the altar of the heavenly sanctuary.
Cosmic War and Sanctuary Setting in the New Testament
By His life and ministry, but, most important, by His atoning death and resurrection, Christ emerges triumphant in the cosmic conflict. On Calvary’s cross He “made a public spectacle” of “principalities and powers,” “triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). Calvary was the altar of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 8:3-5; 13:10), where Christ’s death was as antitype of the paschal lamb (John 1:29), as well as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament’s prescribed sacrificial services (Ps. 40:6-8; Heb. 7-10). Victorious in battle, Christ sits as king/priest in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 1:3; 8:1).
But while “D-Day” of the cosmic war is over, “V-E [Victory] Day” is still future. He is seated “in heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion” (Eph. 1:20, 21). But His church still wrestles “against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The rule of the antichrist, or “man of sin,” predicted in Bible prophecy constitutes the period of “mop-up” operations between the “D-Day” and “V-E Day” of the cosmic battle.
Great Controversy: a Broader Meaning
The term great controversy may have a more direct connection with the sanctuary message than Seventh-day Adventists have sometimes realized. Throughout Scripture God’s regular procedure before closing probation is first to conduct an investigative judgment, throwing open all the books with transparent fairness that ultimately silences Satan’s gossip. So it is from the very first entrance of sin in heaven, summarized in Ezekiel 28.
The description follows the precise structure of the legal trial of the ancient Near East. The one presiding at the investigative judgment in the heavenly sanctuary is introduced (“Thus says Yahweh” [verse 12]); a historical prologue summarizes all that Yahweh has done in behalf of the fallen cherub (verses 12-15); then follow the indictments against him (verses 15-18), the verdict and sentence (verses 16-18), and the reference to the witnesses in the legal proceedings (verses 17-19). 5
The same divine procedure is found after the Fall—with Adam and Eve, at the time of the Flood, at the Tower of Babel, and in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. So too, in the pre-Advent judgment of Daniel 7, announced in Revelation 14. God comes to investigate, not because He needs to know, but so it can be seen that He is fair and just in all His dealings. It is His answer to the original gossip. Instead of meanness we see, in all cases, and at the heart of all His judgments, the grace that wills to save those whose own gullibility or presumption has brought them under judgment.
When the struggle against slander, the long continuing controversy over character, is finally ended, only the battle scars remain—nailprints in the hands of the Chief Commander of heaven’s forces—forever bearing witness to the falsehood of that original gossip, by showing that “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). n
- Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- José Bertolucci, “The Son of the Morning and the Guardian Cherub in the Context of the Controversy Between Good and Evil” (Th.D. diss., Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, 1985). Greg Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997), pp. 157-162, concurs with Bertolucci’s major points.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), pp. 37, 38.
- “Now the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the middle of the orchard” (Gen. 2:9, NET). The Holy of Holies in the wilderness sanctuary lay in the exact middle of the western square of the courtyard. (Scripture quotations designated NET are from The NET Bible. Copyright © 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.)
- The King James Version often labels these legal proceedings as “controversy” (e.g., Micah 6:2).