Do we need temples today? (Final post in this series)
This is my final blog post in this series examining the question, “Do we need temples today?” If you have been following this series, then you know that we have traced the temple theme through the pages of scripture from the Garden of Eden to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Here is a brief summary of the ground we have covered so far.
Summary of the Temple in Redemptive History
In the opening pages of Genesis, we learn that God creates humanity in his own image so that they would subdue and rule the earth (Gen 1:26–28). In other words, Adam and Eve were to be God’s viceroys, his royal ambassadors commissioned to establish his kingdom over the planet. God placed Adam in a garden-sanctuary (temple) to order his life around the worship of God and to experience the blessing of being in God’s presence. Adam’s assignment in the garden was a priestly one. He was to “work” and to “keep/guard” the garden as a priest before God. As Adam and Eve fulfilled the commission to be fruitful and multiply, the boundaries of sacred space would have been pushed out into the far corners of the earth. The whole earth would have become God’s dwelling place (temple) and God’s image would have inhabited every corner of planet earth so that God’s kingdom would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. When Adam failed in this assignment by succumbing to the lie of the serpent, God cast Adam and Eve out from his presence. God banished humanity from the garden-sanctuary and a Cherubim with a flaming sword guarded the entrance back into the garden.
But God did not abandon with his temple building project. He called Israel to be his chosen people. They would exist as a “royal priesthood” (Exod 19:6) before God as they mediated God’s rule and blessing to the rest of the world. God gave Israel instructions to build the tabernacle, which would later be replaced by the temple. The tabernacle and temple functioned as a microcosm of creation (earth, sky, and heaven) and re-established the purpose of the original Edenic sanctuary—God dwelt with Israel like he dwelt with Adam and Eve. Access to God’s presence, however, now required blood sacrifice. The priest could not enter the Holy of Holies without the animal blood that makes atonement. Israel, like Adam, broke God’s covenant. God cast them “out of the garden” by raising up the Assyrians and Babylonians to carry Israel into exile. The glory of God left the temple and God’s kingdom project seemed to have failed once again.
But God would not abandon his purpose to make his glory known to the ends of the earth. He sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to “tabernacle” among men (John 1:14). Jesus came to earth as a living, breathing temple—a temple made without hands. He came to a people in darkness to deliver them from exile—the exile of sin, death, and eternal separation from God. At the cross, Jesus was forsaken of God. The glory of God had left the temple (Jesus) once again. However, because of his perfect sacrifice, God raised Jesus from the dead. The curtain of the temple, barring access to the Holy of Holies and bearing the image of the Cherubim, was torn in two from top to bottom. The way back into the “garden-sanctuary” is open to mankind once again through the blood of Jesus Christ. As the risen and reigning Lord, Jesus is the true image of God who is sending out the Spirit of God to the farthest corners of the earth. As people repent of sin and come to faith in Jesus Christ, they are indwelt by the Spirit of the living God. God’s temple is expanding across the planet by a new and better Adam. This temple is not an architectural building, but a people. We no longer need architectural temples, because the church (people) of Jesus Christ is God’s latter-day temple.
The New Heavens and New Earth as The Consummated Temple
This brings us to the last phase of redemptive history and biblical revelation concerning temple theology. In fact, we will finish where we began: in a garden. In the final chapter of the final book of the Bible, the story ends in a garden. John describes the eternal state like this in Revelation 22:1–4:
Revelation 22:1–4 (ESV) — 1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
The description of this garden-city is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:10–17. The story is now complete. Humans have returned to the garden where they dwell in the presence of the Lord (Rev 22:1). John’s garden-city is, however, even greater than the Garden of Eden. The garden-city that John describes is the totality of the new heavens and new earth. John opens this final scene in Revelation 22:1 with the words, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” He then proceeds to describe this new heavens and new earth as the new Jerusalem, where God and the Lamb dwell (Rev 21:22; 22:1). This city is a perfect cube and its streets are lined with gold (Rev 21:15–21). The shape of the New Jerusalem parallels the shape of the Holy of Holies in Israel’s tabernacle and temple, which was also lined with gold. The imagery suggests that the Holy of Holies now characterizes the entirety of the new heavens and new earth. In other words, the place of God’s special presence has expanded to cover the entire heavens and earth. Every person who dwells here has the name of the Lord on their foreheads (Rev 22:4). Like the high priest in Israel who entered the Holy of Holies with the inscription “Holy to the Lord” on his turban, every person in the new creation is a priest before God—they are all “holy to the Lord.” God’s creation project begun with Adam has finally reached its consummation through the redemption project achieved by Christ. God’s temple has become the visible heavens and earth because of the work of the Lamb. He will dwell with his people forever as they experience the blessing of his presence.
Do we need temples today? The answer, biblically speaking, is clearly ‘no’ if we are referring to architectural buildings. We do not need temple-buildings today because God’s people are the temple of the living God. And we will not need architectural temples in the eternal state, because God’s dwelling place will encompass the new heavens and new earth. Human beings were made to live in the presence of God, but sin separates us from him. But God sent Jesus Christ to make full atonement for our sin so that we could live with God for all eternity. The work of Christ is perfect and it is complete. If you still go to a temple to perform religious duties, I would plead with you to trust in the completed work of Christ. He is God’s temple and by virtue of his cross-work and he will usher in the new heavens and new earth when he returns again. Until then, may his people be faithful to fulfill their commission to expand the dwelling place of God across the globe by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. All who repent of sin and come to Christ alone though grace alone by faith alone await their inheritance in the garden-city (temple) of God.