As everyone knows from 8th grade English class, every piece of literature has a theme. The theme of a book is the sweeping idea it communicates; it’s that one impression that stayed with you from that one book you read eight years ago. You can trace its development from the book’s beginning to its end.
The Bible, in all its brilliance, contains sweeping ideas as well; Genesis-to-Revelation ideas. One of the cover-to-cover themes of the Bible is the idea of temple.
In biblical thought, the temple is the intersection of heaven and earth. Jesus said, “Whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:21-22). In the same breath he said God “dwells” in the temple and in heaven; that is, the fullness of God’s glorious presence is in heaven, but it breaks into the physical, human world at the temple.
Tracing the temple through the Bible:
When he calls it “very good.” Eden, before humanity’s first act of rebellion: God requires no temple. He lives with the people he has created without restriction. Their relationship to him requires no buildings, no rituals. Humankind enjoys blessed peace, and unashamed love, with each other, and with the God who made them. God calls it “very good.”
God pitches a tent. Mount Sinai, around 1500 B.C.: Humanity is now estranged from God because of sin; evil is in the world. Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery and into the Arabian Desert. In an epic scene on Sinai, God forms a special bond, a covenant, between himself and this primitive bunch of former slaves in the desert. He gives them his law for their community, including in it a command to build a tabernacle – in effect, pitch a tent – for him (Exodus 26). “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God,” he says (Exodus 29:45).
God moves in. Jerusalem, around 900 B.C.: Israel is unified and prosperous. King Solomon builds the beautiful and iconic First Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 5-8), and God consecrates it “by putting [his] name there forever” (1 Kings 9:3). This is the temple the psalmists sing about, and Jews reminiscence about forever after.
For hundreds of years, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem is the place where the Israelites come to praise, pray, offer sacrifices, and celebrate their holidays. It occupies the highest place of importance in Israelite thought, life, and worship, for at the temple, the promise of the Sinai covenant is realized: God dwells with his people. David expresses the longing for God’s presence in Psalm 27 when he says, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
The Temple goes on, but never lives up. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially in the books of Ezekiel, Haggai, and Ezra, the temple continues to play a central role. The Old Testament writers continue to understand it as the place where God’s glory breaks into the realm of humanity; however, the temple building itself never seems quite good enough (e.g. Ezra 3:11-13). Foreign conquerors destroy and rebuild it twice before the beginning of the New Testament. It never again reaches the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, and never in its history does it give more than a taste of what it means to be in the presence of God.
The Old Testament is clear: God is infinite and stone walls cannot contain him (1 Chronicles 6:18, see also Acts 17:24). In all its genius, though, this is the foundation the Old Testament lays for how we are to understand the idea of temple, and why it matters to us.
When God comes down. Judea, c. 30 A.D.: The New Testament begins and Jesus the Messiah comes on the scene. He makes an absurd claim: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jewish leaders call him a blasphemer. They get him arrested and crucified. They think they’ve won until three days later when they discover to their horror – his tomb is empty.
Jesus was and is the true Temple, the real Intersection Between Heaven and Earth. He, God and man in one person, broke into our world as “the exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). He, the divine Word, “became flesh and dwelt” – literally, pitched a tent – “among us” (John 1:14). He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
After his resurrection, his followers understood that the temple he had spoken of was himself – his own body, crushed for us (John 2:21-22). Jesus was the Temple, the place at which God breaks into the world, because he is God, he is the glory of God, he is the revelation of God. He was Heaven, dwelling on earth.
Temples of the Holy Spirit. In these post-ascension days, Jesus is no longer on earth bodily, but he has not left the world without a temple – or more correctly, without temples. Here is a truth that will blow your mind: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). You, Christian, are, now, God’s temple on earth. You are the place where heaven and earth intersect, because the Holy Spirit dwells in you, if you can believe it. By faith in Jesus, you are not your own, you were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). You are holy and blessed (1 Corinthians 3:17). You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). “God lives in you, believer, so don’t throw a tarp over a lighthouse” – to quote my favorite morning radio guy.
Buildings, churches, and cathedrals are not God’s house. The people belonging to Jesus are his house (1 Peter 2:4-6). Materials objects do not contain the Christian faith. “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses, the tabernacle, the temples of Jerusalem – all of it testified in advance to the truth that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and that the people redeemed by him are God’s house, and that God promises the people of his house unrestricted access and unashamed relationship with him, forever. That’s good news.
The culmination of it all. From the beginning to the end of God’s book, the idea of “temple” is there. Each time it resurfaces, it builds up our understanding of God and the grace he offers us. At the end of the book of Revelation, it comes up one last time: “I saw no temple in the city,” – that is, the New Jerusalem, John’s vision of the recreated world that is to come – “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). When that world arrives, there will no longer be glimpses of God or foretastes of his glory. We will be with him, fully. No barriers. No processes. Eternal life, with our Creator – when heaven and earth are one.