Question: "What is sacrilege? What does it mean to be sacrilegious?"

Answer: Sacrilege is irreverence toward a sacred person, place, or thing. Sacrilege occurs when someone purposefully misuses a consecrated object, desecrates a hallowed place, or speaks in an irreverent manner of something related to God or religion. The word has Latin roots: sacer (“sacred”) and legere (“to steal”). At first the term sacrilege likely referred to acts of grave robbers who desecrated tombs but has come to refer to any “stealing” of sacredness from a religious place, object, or person.

King Belshazzar of Babylon committed sacrilege at a banquet when “he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that . . . had [been] taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and . . . as they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Daniel 5:3–4). This was one of the last acts of Belshazzar, for he was killed that very night (verse 30).

Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron, committed sacrilege when “they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command” (Leviticus 10:1). The misuse of their holy office resulted in tragedy: “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (verse 2). Obviously, God considers sacrilege to be a serious offense.

The tabernacle (and, later, the temple) in the Old Testament was the place where God would meet with His people. The building and everything contained therein—such as the ark of the covenant—was sprinkled with the blood of a holy sacrifice and therefore set apart for God. Only the priests, who were also consecrated to the Lord for service, were allowed to enter the tabernacle. God struck dead anyone who violated the tabernacle or profaned the sacred articles (Numbers 16:1–40; 2 Samuel 6:6–7). The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the tabernacle by a thick veil and could only be entered once a year when the high priest offered a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people. One lesson the tabernacle taught was that God is holy and we are not—and we dare not commit sacrilege against Him.

Jesus warned the Pharisees against their sacrilegious practice of loose oath-taking. In their oaths, the Pharisees tried to make distinctions between the temple and the gold in the temple treasury (the latter being more holy in their eyes) and between the altar and the gift on the altar (the latter being more holy in their eyes). Jesus taught that the temple and everything associated with it was ultimately consecrated to God, so any oath made on any part of the temple was binding before God (Matthew 23:16–22).

One of the most common forms of sacrilege today is the profaning of God’s holy name and the name of our Lord Jesus. This is in direct violation of Exodus 20:7, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (cf. Psalm 139:20). The New Testament prohibits “unwholesome talk” (Ephesians 4:29), which certainly includes using God’s name as a swear word.

Though some churches today have saints and “holy” elements, there is no biblical reason to lift up one person, place, or item as more “sacred” than another. All believers, not just a select few, “are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The Old Testament temple is gone, and now we are “God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Paul asks believers, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (verse 16). If someone today spray paints blasphemies on the side of a church building, it is indeed an act of sacrilege, but not because the wood and stone of the building are holy. It is the intent of the blasphemer to disrespect God, and he aims his action at an accessible, tangible representation of God, in his mind. That intent is what makes the vandalism sacrilege, and God sees the heart.

Even religious systems can promote sacrilege, if they “steal” the sanctity of God and apply it to people or things. Churches that canonize biblical characters or historical figures, pray to saints, command the adoration of icons or relics, or foster reverence toward physical objects are guilty of sacrilege. People whom God has used should be shown respect and learned from, but they are still sinners saved by grace. Physical objects may have historical significance or meaning as religious symbols, but they should never be knelt before, prayed to, or sought out as a means of procuring grace.