Do we need temples today? The answer (Part 4)
In my previous post in this series on temples, I considered the function and symbolism of Israel’s tabernacle and temple. We now continue our trek through redemptive history in order to arrive at a biblical-theological answer to the question, ‘Do we need temples today?’ If you have been following this series, you know that I have not yet given an answer to the question. Maybe you have been thinking, “Just answer the question already!” I hear you and thank you for your patience. So do we need temples today? Answer: No, if you are talking about a temple made of bricks and mortar. Yes, if you are talking about a temple made up of people. Let me explain.
Jesus the Temple
As we come to the New Testament, we discover that the purpose of the temple is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Remember, from the Garden of Eden to the tabernacle to Solomon’s temple, the temple existed to be the place of God’s special presence on earth. Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple were the places that God met with his people. They were the places where the glory of God dwelt on earth. But when the Son of God took on flesh and became incarnate, the glory of God resided in him. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. When Christ walked the earth, he was the localized presence of God among men—a temple made of flesh and blood. Consider the following New Testament passages:
John 1:14 (ESV) — 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The word we translate “dwelt” literally to means “tabernacled.” The Greek word is σκηνὸω, which is the verbal form of the Greek word for tabernacle (σκηνή, cf. Exod 25:9; 26:1). According to John, Jesus is the tabernacle of God. God’s glory dwells in him. Jesus also spoke of himself as a temple:
John 2:18–21 (ESV) — 18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Jesus identified his own body as the temple of God and through his ministry he rendered Israel’s temple obsolete. The Gospel narratives depict Jesus performing actions associated with temple worship outside of the temple confines. For example Jesus forgives sins apart from the temple’s sacrificial system (cf. Mk 2:1–12). He also cleanses a leper and delineates between clean and unclean (Mk 1:40–45; 7:1–23). When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he cleanses the temple as an act of judgment (Mk. 11:15–19). On the heels of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, the temple cleansing symbolizes a wholesale rejection of Israel’s temple worship (Mk 11:12–19). Of course Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is the definitive moment that renders the sacrificial system of the temple obsolete. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice tears the temple curtain in two opening the way into the Holy of Holies (Mk 15:38). Through Christ’s sacrifice, humanity has access to the presence of God once again.
What does this mean for us today? If the New Testament presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the temple, then where do we find God’s presence on earth today? After all Jesus ascended into heaven and will reside there until he comes again. Should followers of Jesus construct architectural temples to house the presence of God on earth until Jesus comes again? Or are we simply left without an earthly presence of God in these last days leading up to his coming? Thankfully, the New Testament provides the answers to such questions. The presence of God continues to dwell among men even though Jesus is in heaven, but God’s presence is not found in an architectural temple. His presence abides in a people, namely the new covenant church.
The Church as the Temple of God
At the feast of booths, Jesus declared a promise to everyone who believes in him. He boldly stated:
John 7:37–39 (ESV) — 37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
These words clearly pick up the imagery of Ezekiel’s end-time temple recorded in Ezekiel 47:1–12. Just as rivers of life-giving water issued forth from the threshold of the temple in Ezekiel 47, so now Jesus extends forth rivers of living water to all who believe in him. The “living water” that Jesus gives is the Spirit of God. This of course is an important truth of Christian theology. The Spirit of God indwells every follower of Jesus. In other words, Christians are the dwelling place of God on earth. They are God’s house—a house (i.e. temple) made of flesh and blood. In the new covenant era, God has made provision for a temple on earth. This temple, however, is not an architectural building; it is the people (church) of God.
Here’s how the apostle Paul describes the church as God’s temple:
Ephesians 2:19–22 (ESV) — 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 6:16 (ESV) — 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV) — 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
The picture in Ephesians 2 is of the church being built as a temple on the cornerstone of Christ and the foundation of the apostles and prophets. In 2 Corinthians 6:16, Paul applies the temple prophecies of both Leviticus 26:12 and Ezekiel 37:26–27 to the church of the Lord Jesus. This means that the meaning and purpose of the temple was fulfilled in Christ and continues to be fulfilled in the body of Christ, namely his church. The Lord Jesus has commissioned his church to go into the entire world to make disciples. As the church fulfills its mission, it expands the “borders” of God’s dwelling presence to the ends of the earth. As people from all nations become indwelt by the Spirit of God and believe in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, God’s holy temple expands.
In the first blog post of this series, I argued that Adam’s assignment was to expand the borders of Eden so that God’s glory would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. He was to mediate God’s presence to the world as a priest-king before God. I hope it is clear by now that Jesus has succeeded where Adam failed. Jesus is the royal Son of God and great high priest who is building God’s temple by sending out the Holy Spirit to call men, women, boys, and girls to repentance and faith. Jesus has inaugurated God’s kingdom and he is building God’s temple (people) across the planet.
Do we need temples today? No, if we are thinking of an architectural building. World religions that promote the idea that God resides in a temple building are fundamentally flawed and do not understand the Bible, redemptive history, or the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. I live in Utah where Mormon temples abound. If you were to approach one of these Mormon temples, you would find the following inscription written on the front of the building: “Holiness to the Lord. The House of the Lord.” Such a statement is clearly a severe error. These architectural buildings do not house the presence of God or the presence of Jesus. To suggest that these architectural temples contain the presence of God on earth demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of the person of Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished. Even though Mormonism appeals to new revelation given to Joseph Smith to re-establish temple usage (D&C 88:119; D&C Section 95), it must be recognized that this new revelation is at fundamental odds with the thrust of the New Testament on this issue. We must either side with Jesus and the apostles by recognizing that architectural temples are no longer needed, or we must side with Joseph Smith. Both cannot be right on this one.
Mormonism is not the only religion that still employs physical structures to house their deities. Mankind still has an overwhelming desire to meet with the divine. Yet, when we understand the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible, we discover that God has chosen to meet with man outside of physical buildings. He sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to bring humanity back into the presence of God. He has done this by his perfect sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the grave and his ascent into the heavenly Holy of Holies. Everyone who repents of sin and believes in Christ has forgiveness and becomes part of God’s living temple. Those who have this eternal hope, await the consummation of God’s kingdom when Christ comes again to usher in the new heavens and new earth. At this time, the whole cosmos will becoming the dwelling place of God. I will explore the idea of the new creation as the Bible’s consummated temple in my last post in this series. Coming soon.