In a world where temples where commonplace for religious activity and often the center of a city, the Christian faith in the first century certainly would have stood out for their lack of temple building.
It seems Christians have always been thought of as a little weird.
For people of the ancient world, a temple was the place where the divine met the human space, where the heavens and the earth united. The Israelites held to this too. Their temple was the meeting place of Yahweh, where His full presence resided with His people.
With the surrounding influence of other religions and having deep Jewish roots, one may ask, “why do Christians not have a temple?”
We may have church buildings and facilities but not a centralized location to meet with God. So what did early Christians believe about meeting with God’s presence? Why did they think the Temple, a hugely important building to their Jewish brothers and sisters, was no longer necessary?
Maybe they found God’s presence in another place. Or even another person.
To understand this, we must follow a thread throughout our Old Testament that starts in the garden of Eden. Genesis opens with God creating through stages of seven different days. One way of understanding the 7 days is by seeing Genesis as a story about God creating his cosmic temple to dwell in with all his creation. The intentional seven-day process echoes ancient tradition of inaugurating a Temple in seven days. The description of Eden and God’s perfect presence with His creation there all point to a Temple construct. It is here at the beginning that man existed in perfect presence with God in a heaven and earth unity.
However, the Garden-Temple does not last more than a few pages. The rebellious act of Adam and Eve causes the unity of God’s dwelling place with man to be severed. The perfect Temple is no longer inhabited by both God and man. The rest of Genesis then records man’s perpetual downward spiral of sin. As the situation worsens, the reader is forced to wonder how God will once again dwell with His people?
The rest of Old Testament looks to answer this question! After the Exodus, Moses is called to construct a tabernacle (a massive tent!) as a dwelling place for God’s presence. The precise creation of the Tabernacle is so important that fifteen chapters of Exodus are dedicated to its proper construction as well as the book of Leviticus’ in-depth care guide for it (you know, that book we all love to read). The Tabernacle is a holy space, one where few could enter; and those that did were under strict prerequisites. The damage of the fall left us unable to be constantly in God’s holy presence. The Tabernacle would function as this meeting place until a more permanent structure was built.
That permanent structure came once Israel settled into the land and David’s son Solomon built a Temple for God. The Temple would become the central point of Jewish activity and hope. God’s people were given a powerful symbol of their unique relationship to their creator.
Once again, like the Tabernacle, the Temple was not the end goal. As Israel’s sin magnified, the imminent destruction of the Temple approached. Ezekiel (Ch. 10) would record in a vision God’s departure from the Temple signifying an end to the Temple.
The traumatic end came in 587 BC when Babylon invaded Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. The period after the Temple’s destruction, the exile, became a testing ground for the Israelite’s trust in God’s plan. The covenantal promises of God seemed to be a failure but He was still enacting His cosmic plan.
Under the rule of the Persians, while still in exile, the Israelites took it upon themselves to push forward God’s plan by recreating the Temple. Zerubbabel, in the book of Ezra, began construction on what would be known as the Second Temple. Hopes were high with this re-creation, but a close reading of the narrative reveals disappointing results. There is no mention of God’s presence filling the second temple while. This would stand in stark contrast to the events at the completion of the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35) and Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 7:1). Even the leaders and priests who recalled the first temple cried out in disappointment when they saw how the new temple looked compared to the old (Ezra 3:12). All they saw was a major letdown. It seemed as though God had not truly returned to their attempted temple.
This disappointment and uncertainty of what God was up to would mark the period of Jesus’ time. It is here that John will open his Gospel with words linking back to this temple narrative. God’s people were in need of a Temple, a place for God and man to dwell, a place for heaven to be on earth, and this time it was not coming as a building but as a person. The Gospel according to John tells us this:
“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 “Christmas story” found in John is summarized in these profound words. God became human and dwelt among us. That word “dwelt” becomes tremendously important when we understand its true meaning. Welcome to a mini Greek class! John uses the Greek word skēnoō here for “dwelt”. Skēnoō, could literally be translated as “to pitch a tabernacle”; an apparent allusion to the Tabernacle/Temple.
By recalling the purpose of the Tabernacle, John has connected Jesus to the traveling dwelling place of God. Jesus thus becomes this new Tabernacle according to John. As the Tabernacle mirrors the reality of Eden, the place of united relationship with God, man, heaven, and earth, Jesus too illuminates this reality. The opening words of John’s Gospel place Jesus in this grand narrative of Scripture. Jesus is the answer to the Temple problem. As the new place where God and man meet, where God’s reality meets ours; Jesus brings people into Eden-like presence with God. The dwelling presence of God was no longer limited to a building, but was personally interacting with his people. Everywhere Jesus went, the Temple-like presence of God was there.
Later in John, a huge development in the temple-theme appears. We learn that Jesus promises his followers this eternal presence of God through the giving of the Spirit. God’s presence has now moved from building, to person, the the entire body of believers! The believers thus become like this traveling Temple of Jesus’ presence through the Spirit.
This then gives us immediate relevance for the temple theme. Because Jesus tabernacled among us and gave us God’s Spirit, we now move about setting up tabernacles of God’s presence. Your interaction with the people around can become an invitation for someone to experience God’s temple presence. The way you care for your hurting co-worker. The way you treat the customer service agent. The way you love the crazy high school student at church. Done in a matter reflective of Jesus, our daily actions and words can lead people to knowing a present God.