The Temple and The Church’s Mission

February 9, 2010 — Leave a comment

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[This post is part of the Eschatology series]

This book I had actually started back in the fall as part of an investigation for a class on the ancient Near East. I was looking into the significance and purpose of temples, and G.K. Beale in this book has a rather extensive section on the cosmic significance of the ANE understanding of temples. The impetus originated in my reading of John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One and his contention that a temple is in view in Genesis 1. In the end, his conclusion was not without some difficulties, but the point that did emerge was that for all intents and purposes on Moses’ part, the Garden of Eden is being pictured as a sanctuary, or dwelling place of God. Adam is installed as its priest, and he is to keep and work the garden and expand it and fill the earth.

What is interesting then, and what actually got Beale started on this study is how in Revelation 21-22, you have a garden-like city descend from heaven to the new earth and John states that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22 ESV). Elsewhere, John in his Gospel has connected the temple with Christ when recounting the cleansing of the temple:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about bthe temple of his body. (John 2:19-21 ESV)

Apparently, taking these two ideas together, we have two thoughts: (1) The temple seems to reach its fulfillment in God dwelling directly with his people, (2) the beginning of this fulfillment was the incarnation of Christ, who is God dwelling (tabernacling as some would say, i.e. John 1:14) among us. The idea seems to be that now that Christ has come in the flesh, the temple’s significance has faded to the background. The temple as literal physical building, was itself figurative and pointed to something greater.

Eschatologically then, it would seem rather backwards to envision a millennial temple in the sense of a physical building where sacrifices are made, as some are prone to interpret Ezekiel 40-48. Two things now stand in the way of viewing this text that way: (1) The book of Hebrews, which seems pretty intent to point to the finality of Christ’s priestly work and sacrifice, and (2) the understanding of a temple’s purpose in the ANE. Given the first reason, even if there were an architectural structure at some future point, sacrifices would be rather meaningless, even as a memorial as C.I. Scofield has suggested in his study notes, as Christ has already instituted a memorial: The Lord’s Supper (Communion). Given the second reason, with God himself dwelling in perfect harmony with his creation in Revelation 22, there is no purpose left for a temple building to fulfill. The temple precincts have been expanded to include the entire heavens and new earth.

Space does not permit diving into Beale’s arguments about Ezekiel 40-48, but there is little evidence within that text that demands an architectural fulfillment of that prophecy, and it seems very much that John’s vision at the end of Revelation is recounting that particular fulfillment to us. The prophecy is being fulfilled literally, in the sense that the literal spiritual reality that the figurative physical reality pointed to all along is coming to fruition. A literal fulfillment does not in any way demand an architectural structure to be built, and much of the descriptions in Ezekiel actually mitigate against that view since so many significant pieces of the physical building are absent.

There are more reasons than just what I have brought into view above, but all in all it was a very fascinating read about the Biblical theology of God’s dwelling place and what ramifications that has for eschatology. In addition to seeming to cancel out any interpretations of end times that yield a regress of building a physical building and instituting dead rituals in it, this understanding of temple, when coupled with Paul’s understanding in Ephesians has interesting ramifications for Revelation 11.

Paul says in Ephesians 2:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV)

It seems Paul is making the case that in a certain sense, the church is also like a temple, in that he asserts that its members are being built into a dwelling place for God, which is to say, a temple. Paul has made this point elsewhere (2 Corinthians 6:16-18, which echoes Leviticus 26 and Ezekiel 37) and it is likely that it also what he is thinking in 2 Thessalonians 2 where he speaks of the man of lawlessness who “takes his seat in the temple of God.” Once the idea of an end time temple is removed from view, what is the probable referent in Paul’s mind when he says, “temple of God”? I think a good case can be made that he is referring to the church. Re-read that passage with that in mind and see if a paradigm shift doesn’t ensue. I will return to this idea in a later post, but before finishing, try that same thing with this passage:

Then I was given ma measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for pforty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, qclothed in sackcloth.” (Revelation 11:1-3 ESV)

Now, I don’t have time to completely re-exposit this passage, but it is very likely, given background context from the OT and from the NT as well, that “temple of God,” again here, is referring to the church, not to the actual temple, which may or may not have even been standing at the time of writing (that’s the subject for a different post entirely). It seems for the most part that any mention of temple in the NT needs to be interpreted in light of Christ taking over as the reality to which the temple pointed and the church, rather than the physical building of the temple, has become the dwelling place of God in an inaugurated form that is yet to be fully realized. If that is in view, this has significant ramifications for how those “two witnesses” are understood, but we’ll have to come back to that at a later time.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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