From the beginning God has fervently pursued an active, thriving relationship with His human family. Of all created beings, He determined that only humans would be made in His own image and likeness. Thus, immediately after the fall, as the first man and woman hid themselves from Him, God came seeking them. His cry of “Where are you?” is arguably the saddest phrase in the entire Bible (Gen. 3:9).
Human history is full of our failed attempts to restore that unique relationship with God that was broken in Eden, but on our own terms. We have endeavoured to bring God ‘’down’’ to us in a manner that makes us comfortable, with little regard for what makes Him comfortable.
As Israel journeyed through the wilderness, God instructed Moses to make a portable tabernacle, or tent. He specified that an inner sanctuary should be made within the tabernacle that would be His own sacred dwelling place. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8). He was showing His people that unlike the false heathen gods round about them, He was not a god who was distant and disinterested. Neither would He allow them to represent Him with a crude man-made image of wood or stone. Rather His desire and stated intention was that His tangible, living, spiritual Presence would dwell among them, right in their midst (Ex. 29:45-46).
Years later David sought to erect a permanent temple, an earthly house for God. God said no to David, but He would allow David’s son, Solomon, to build it (1 Chron. 22:6-16). And so, the first Israelite temple was constructed in Jerusalem, again housing the inner sanctuary where the Presence of God dwelt among His people. This first temple, however, was destroyed by the Babylonians in around 587BC.
Fast forward to the days of Jesus and we find a second, newly constructed temple, erected by King Herod in the same place as the first had stood, only bigger and more elaborate. In its time Herod’s temple was the pride of Israel, believed to have been lavishly adorned with gold¹.
On one occasion one of Jesus’ disciples remarked on the greatness of Herod’s temple: Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2)
In a fulfilment of Jesus’ words, this second temple too was destroyed when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D. All that remains of Herod’s temple now is part of its ruined western wall, which has become a place of prayer and pilgrimage even to this day.
And so it continues – from centuries-old palatial cathedrals, to rustic country chapels to huge city auditoriums, humans delight to construct ‘’houses’’ for God. Originally, however, Christians came together to worship in their own homes. The word church, or ecclesia, as it was used in New Testament times meant a people group, not a building. It was not until the third century that Christians began to erect purpose-built places for worship. The word “church” soon became identified more with a particular place than a particular people (1 Peter 2:9).
Two distinct Greek words are translated into our one English word ‘’temple’’ in the New Testament. The Greek hieron refers to the entire temple with all its precincts including the outer courts, the women’s court, the court of Israel where only Jewish males were allowed to venture, the priests’ court and the inner sanctuary or Holy of Holies, the habitation of God. However, another Greek word, naos, refers not to the temple in general, but specifically to the most sacred inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, where God’s manifest Presence dwelt and where only the High Priest could enter once a year to make atonement for the peoples’ sins.
Writing to the Corinthian believers, Paul asked: Do you not know that you are a
temple sanctuary (naos) of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?’ (1 Cor.3:16 NASB). And again: Or do you not know that your body is a temple sanctuary (naos) of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:19). Don’t you know this, he seems to be asking with some incredulity, and why don’t you know this?
The idea that God would prefer to dwell in a sanctuary made of living human beings was no doubt difficult for the Corinthian Christians, former idol worshipers, to get their heads around (1 Cor. 12:2). Corinth was well-known as a city of several temples, including one for the goddess Aphrodite.
But why is it so difficult for many present-day Christians to comprehend that the dwelling place of God is a people rather than a dedicated building?
Even now many of us do not yet perceive ourselves as God’s chosen dwelling place, in all the fullness and privilege of what that means. Years of religious conditioning have robbed us of the beautiful truth that God has chosen us as His own sacred sanctuary. We have not comprehended that our Living God prefers a sanctuary of living people over anything humankind can construct for Him.
Many of us are still stuck in the same mindset the disciples unwittingly revealed in their admiration of Herod’s temple. While He was on earth Jesus was God’s earthly sanctuary (Jn. 2:19). What Jesus’ disciples did not understand as they marvelled at the temple in Jerusalem was that, in Christ, God’s manifest Presence, His sanctuary, walked right beside them. To be in the presence of Jesus was to be in the presence of God. Neither did the argumentative Pharisees understand when Jesus told them “…something greater than the temple is here” (Matt.12:6).
Similarly, we often take pride in the historic cathedrals gracing our cities, proudly boast in the technical attributes of our state-of-the-art facilities, or take comfort in the familiarity of a little chapel we have attended for years – all of which will cease to exist. But God has fashioned for Himself a living sanctuary which human minds did not design, human hands did not erect, and in which human hearts can take no pride.
The risen Jesus is our High Priest and Minister in the Sanctuary (Heb. 8:1-2). The irony is that Jesus would not ever have been allowed to enter the physical inner sanctuary of Herod’s temple, where the High Priest carried out his yearly atonement for the people, for He was from the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi (Heb. 8:4).
Since the Resurrection the place of God’s dwelling is no longer to be found in the temples we have come to call ‘’church’’. No man-made building, no matter how magnificent or beautifully adorned, can contain the Presence of God. God has chosen that He, through His Spirit, will only inhabit a living sanctuary comprised of human beings bearing the Life of Christ. Christ came that we may know the Father and become His own sacred sanctuary on this earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us, ‘’in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy
temple sanctuary in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21)
Today there are those who desire to build a third temple in Jerusalem for God to inhabit. A traditional Jewish prayer often recited at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount states: ‘’May we merit redeeming this place for the Shechina (Holy Presence) to dwell, and to build the Holy Temple quickly and in our days.”² However, immediately after Christ’s resurrection, even as Old Covenant priests carried out Old Covenant rituals within an Old Covenant temple, in the surrounding streets of Jerusalem the Holy Spirit was already busy erecting a new, living sanctuary out of consecrated human vessels where Father and Son would make their true earthly home (Jn. 14:23). This spiritual sanctuary continues to expand as more are added to the Kingdom.
A living God requires a living sanctuary (2 Cor. 6:16). God is not looking for a house of bricks and mortar, steeples and spires or state-of-the-art sound systems. He does not need a hierarchy of priests, nor rituals, nor man-made traditions. He Who is Life seeks out Life. That is why He builds His own house using the living stones of a set apart people embedded with His own Life. That is why He appoints those same set apart company of people as His own royal priesthood. That is why He came seeking the man and the woman in Eden.
Following Christ was never meant to be lived out in the shadows of systems that are no longer relevant, but in the spiritual reality of His endless Life dwelling within His living people. Something far greater than the temple is here in which we are invited to participate, to offer ourselves to Him as His own living sanctuary. That is something to celebrate.
¹Jesus may have made reference to this gold in Matthew 23:16-17.
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