Do We Need Temples Today? (Part 3)
In part two of this series, I examined the creation narrative to describe the relationship between the Eden Temple and Adam and Eve’s role in relationship to it. We saw that God commissioned Adam and Eve to subdue and rule the world by exercising their God-given offices of priesthood and kingship. Adam’s assignment to “work” and “guard” the garden identified him as a priest in God’s sacred temple and his identity as an image bearer ascribed to him the status of a royal son of God (Gen 2:15; 1:26–28; cf. Gen 5:1–3). As Adam Eve fulfilled the creation commission to be fruitful and multiply, they would have propagated the divine image to the far corners of the earth so that God’s rule and reign (i.e., kingdom) would encompass the entire planet. Implied in this commission was the fact that the borders of Eden would need to expand as the human race multiplied. The sacred space of the garden-sanctuary would push outward into the outer spaces of the earth until the entire earth became the dwelling place of God.
As we move out of the creation narrative, we discover that God’s creation project in a pre-fallen world becomes his redemption project in a world under the curse of sin. God intends to fulfill his purpose to dwell with mankind, but how can a holy God dwell with a defiled people? Sin prevents human beings from access to the presence of God. We live outside the garden. So how will God accomplish his creation project to establish his rule through fallen human beings? How will God’s temple (dwelling place) become a global reality when sinful humanity cannot be in the presence of God? To begin to answer these questions, we must fast forward in redemptive history to consider the nation of Israel and her temple. In what follows, I will argue that Israel inherited the Adamic role and her tabernacle/temple was a symbolic microcosm of the cosmos and a re-establishment the Edenic sanctuary.
Israel as a New Adam
The book of Exodus opens with a description of Israel that is reminiscent of Genesis 1:28: The people were “fruitful” and “multiplied” and “filled” the earth (Exod 1:7). The allusion to Genesis 1:28 implies that the creation mandate given to Adam is coming to pass through Israel. Exodus 4:22 identifies the people of Israel as Yahweh’s “firstborn son.” Yahweh commands Pharaoh to release his son “so that they might serve” Him (Exod 4:23). The combination of Israel’s identity as Yahweh’s firstborn son and the purpose of their redemption defined as service to Yahweh suggests that Israel has inherited the Adamic role since Adam was God’s son and servant-king. Moreover, Exodus 15:17–18 indicates that the purpose of Israel’s redemption was for them to dwell with God under the rule of God forever:
Exodus 15:17–18 (ESV) — 17 You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established. 18 The LORD will reign forever and ever.”
The goal of the Exodus was for Israel to dwell in an Edenic mountain sanctuary in the presence of God under the rule and reign of God. This was God’s purpose for humanity at creation. Finally, Exodus 19:5–6 identifies Israel as a “royal priesthood.” As royal priests, they enjoyed access to God and were called to be mediators of God’s rule to the nations. Of course their access to God’s presence was continent upon blood sacrifice. For in a fallen world, sinful humanity cannot enter the presence of God without shedding blood to make atonement.
Much could be said here concerning Israel’s royal priestly identity, but the point here is that they have inherited the role assigned to Adam, the prototypical priest-king. Thus, Israel was God’s chosen nation to bring about God’s plan for his kingdom. They were to be a collective body of royal priests with access to God’s presence and to serve as mediators between God and the nations.
Israel’s Temple as a New Eden and Microcosm of the Cosmos
In Hebrews 8:5, the author of Hebrews indicates that Israel’s earthly tabernacle was merely a copy of the heavenly tabernacle:
Hebrews 8:5 (ESV) — 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
What “pattern” was Moses shown on the mountain that served as the blueprint for building the earthly tabernacle? The pattern was a miniature replica of the true tent built by the Lord, namely the heavenly realm (Heb 8:2). In other words, Israel’s tabernacle and later temple were merely miniature models or replicas of something greater. They were, in essence, microcosms of the Lord’s true temple, namely the heavens and the earth. Only the entire cosmos is expansive enough to be an adequate—though insufficient—house for God. No earthly temple could ever contain the glorious presence of the creator of heaven and earth (Isa 66:1). The earthly temple, therefore, had to point beyond itself to this greater universal reality. We can surmise then that Israel’s temple was meant to be a symbolic and temporary model of God’s future temple, namely the new heavens and new earth. The symbolism associated with the design of the tabernacle and the temple bears this out.
The instructions concerning the building of the tabernacle echoes manner in which God created (built) the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1 says that God created the universe in seven days—six days of creating and resting on the seventh. In a similar manner, God instructs Moses on how to build the tabernacle in a series of seven speeches (Exod 25–31). Most notably in this regard are the sixth and seventh speeches of Yahweh to Moses; the sixth speech emphasizes the installation of two men filled with the Spirit of God and wisdom to build the tabernacle, while the seventh is a reminder of the importance of Sabbath keeping for the people of Israel and concludes with a direct reference to creation: “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Exod 31:17). The construction of the tent is therefore patterned after the creation of the cosmos. This is likely the reason the prophets refer to the heavenly realm as a “tent:”
Isaiah 40:22 (ESV) — 22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; Psalm 104:2 (ESV) — 2 covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent.
The earthly tent (tabernacle) was merely a replica of the heavenly reality. The tripartite structure of the tabernacle and temple also points to their cosmic symbolic significance and, as noted in the first post of this series, reflects the tripartite structure of Eden, the garden, and the outer world. The Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, and the outer courtyard of the temple represent the invisible heavenly dimension, the sky, and the earth.
First, the Holy of Holies was the place that housed the concentrated presence of God. It was set apart from the Holy Place by a curtain containing imagery of the cherubim (Exod 26:31). Inside the Holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant, which was overshadowed by two cherubim (Exod 25:18–20). The ark of the covenant is described elsewhere as God’s footstool (1 Chron. 28:2) and inside the ark was the law of God (Exod 25:16). This most sacred portion of the temple is nothing less than the earthly throne room of God. God sits in the heavens and his feet find their resting place in the Holy of Holies. This inner sanctum is the place where heaven and earth meet as God’s will (law of God) is done on earth as it is in heaven. The cherubim on the curtain “guarding” the way to the ark (cf. Gen 3:24) and the cherubim overshadowing the ark represent the angels surrounding God in the invisible heavenly dimension (Rev 4:6–8). God dwells in this invisible heavenly tent and the Holy of Holies is merely the replica of this invisible realm (cf. Heb 8:2–5).
Second, the Holy Place symbolized the sky above. The blue, purple, and scarlet colors of the curtains in the holy of holies reflect the visible heavens. Against these curtains shone the light from the lampstand. The Hebrew מאור used to describe the lights of the lampstand is the same word that is used to describe the heavenly “lights” (sun, moon, and stars) in the creation narrative (Gen 1:14–16). This word appears in the Torah only in reference to the lights of the lampstand and in reference to the heavenly lights in Genesis 1:14–16. Whereas the Holy of Holies symbolized the invisible heavenly dimension where God dwells, the Holy Place symbolized the visible heavens.
Third, the outer courtyard of the tabernacle and temple symbolically portrays the land and seas of the earth. The large wash basin in Solomon’s temple sat on 12 oxen and was called the “sea of cast metal” (1 Kgs 7:23). Its large size symbolized the seas of the earth. The oxen on which it sat were divided into groups of three, each group facing north, south, east, or west (1 Kgs 7:25). The oxen represent the beasts of the earth. Furthermore, the altar of the courtyard was to be made of stone, symbolizing the natural elements of the earth (Exod 20:24–25).
Much more could be said, but the point I am making is that the tabernacle and temple represented a re-establishment of the Edenic sanctuary and functioned as a microcosm of the cosmos. The symbolic nature of the tabernacle and temple is important for understanding their ultimate purpose. God’s dwelling presence was never meant to remain relegated to a localized structure. Israel, as the new Adam, was to exercise her royal priestly status by mediating God’s kingdom to the rest of the world. Through Israel the microcosm (man-made temple) would become the macrocosm—the entire cosmos. In other words, God called Israel to fulfill the creation project he had begun with Adam. Israel would be the means whereby God’s kingdom would advance and his dwelling place would eventually become the entire created order. The prophets of Israel anticipated a time when Israel’s temple would expand its borders to the ends of the earth:
Isaiah 54:2–3 (ESV) — 2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. 3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.
But Israel failed in role as a royal priesthood and new Adam. They broke God’s covenant and worshipped other gods. Therefore, God sent them into exile by Babylon. His glory left the temple, Jerusalem was laid waste, and God’s people were cast out of the “garden” once again. God would eventually bring his people out of exile and back to their land and they would rebuild the temple. But the rebuilt temple was a pathetic rendition of Solomon’s glorious temple. It was clearly not the temple the prophets anticipated. The Old Testament ends with an expectation that God’s kingdom is yet to come. In my next post we will consider the arrival of Christ and the temple of his body.