The Temple of the Old Testament figured large in the minds of the Israelites. The temple, as a physical structure, symbolized the presence of God in Israel, and in fact, God’s presence rested on the Temple.
Life for the average Israelite centered on the Temple. People made regular pilgrimages there for festivals and to fulfill sacrificial rites and responsibilities. The Temple sat high atop Mount Zion in the heart of Jerusalem. To approach Jerusalem was to see this great Temple in all its splendor. Thus, literally and figuratively, all of Jerusalem and all of Israel sat in the shadow of the Temple.
When David had finished his wars, his heart beat for the construction of the Temple. Until that point in Israelite history, the Lord dwelt in a tent called the Tabernacle. But as David conquered and captured Jerusalem for Israel, he had a vision for building a great Temple for the permanent dwelling of the Lord.
David would not complete the construction, but his son, Solomon, would accomplish this great architectural feat. Solomon would craft a beautiful and grand structure, made by the finest craftsmen with the finest materials. It would be a landmark building, the boast of Israel.
When Israel was carried off into captivity, the great lament would be for the Temple. When the Israelites returned from captivity, one of the first tasks would be to rebuild the Temple. The temple was so central. But in the New Testament, something startling happens.
In the New Testament, something surprising happens; the church loses interest in the Temple. Now how can that be? How can this national symbol, this literal place of God’s dwelling lose interest in the minds of the church?
The reason the church lost interest in the literal, physical Temple is because the Church became the Temple of God. The Church is the Temple of God.
When you understand the theology and history of the Temple, this declaration should shock you. That God would deign to live in sinful people is astounding. That God should so condescend changes everything, and yet, the Bible claims this very thing. We are God’s temple.
In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Think about that. God’s Spirit dwells in you. That’s amazing! Consider again the Temple. The temple was far off for many Israelites. It was in Jerusalem. It was the journey of many days. And once you entered the Temple, there was still some distance between you and God, for God’s manifest presence dwelt within the Holy of Holies, behind a great curtain stretching from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and three inches thick. Only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and only once a year and only after careful sacrifice had been made his sins and only with great fear and trembling. That was life with the holy God. But now the church contains the real presence of God!
But in Christ, we are washed and cleansed from our sins. We are declared righteous, and God sees fit, in in grace and kindness and through the work of Jesus on the cross, to send His Holy Spirit to live in believers. We are the Temple now!
Let me make three important observations from this image of the church.
First, while we individually have God’s presence dwelling in us, the New Testament typically focuses on God’s presence in us, not in an individual. The imagery is always that of various construction materials coming together to form one unified structure. The Apostle Peter writes, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offerspiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). We are described as individual stones that come together to form one great and living temple. All this communicates the importance of community.
Second, if we want to experience God’s presence, we don’t go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, we go to church. We don’t have to go for some mountain top experience at a camp or a retreat, we simply need to go to church. Church is where God greatly manifests his presence. If you are having trouble discerning God’s Spirit, you don’t necessarily need to turn inside more deeply. You may need simply to turn to the church.
Third, if the church lives as the Temple of God, the place of His dwelling, then He has called us to be Holy. Like, really holy. The Apostle Paul uses the temple-church imagery in precisely this way. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul says again, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” And in light of this truth, he is pleading for sexual purity. The full passage reads: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:18-20). Clearly for Paul, a proper understanding of the church as the temple of God leads to a life of greater holiness.
So then the imagery of the Temple portrays the church as a place of unity and holiness in the presence of God. May we live out the joy and gravity of this vision.