As London recovered from the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral and to rebuild or refurbish fifty-one churches. The altarpiece shown here is in the Temple Church. The style is ostensibly austere, formal, didactic: on this central panel are the Ten Commandments; on the side-panels, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.
There was, in Wren’s day, an intense interest in the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 CE and never rebuilt. It had, in the grandest architecture, replicated the layout and roles of the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle) created by Moses in the wilderness to house the Ark of the Covenant wherever he pitched camp (Exodus 25–31).
As Hebrews reminds us (9:3–4), the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies. There King Solomon had placed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Ark’s lid was the Mercy-Seat, God’s throne—or the footstool of God’s throne—on earth. At each end of the Ark was a carved cherub. The Holy of Holies itself was decorated with carvings of trees and fruits to mimic the loveliness of Paradise, where God had once walked with humankind (Genesis 3:8).
And Wren’s altarpiece? Here in the centre is the altar or Lord’s Table, the Mercy-Seat of the New Covenant. Above it are the two round-topped panels of the Ten Commandments. Above them in turn are two tiny cherubs’ heads. On each side is a carved frieze of fruits and flowers. Wren has created a version, pared down and open to view, of the Holy of Holies.
I celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday in the Temple Church. We are clearly the heirs here of the great Western tradition, its classical forms and three-membered altarpieces. (Such triptychs in Roman Catholic Churches are painted; Wren replaced images with more suitably Protestant words.) But we are the heirs too of a still more ancient setting for worship. I stand before the altar here as the High Priest stood in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, in the Holy of Holies—before the throne of God.
9 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. 3Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, 4having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties; 7but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people. 8By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened as long as the outer tent is still standing 9(which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. 19For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” 21And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.