What good is a temple?
In yesterday’s post, we examined Haggai’s emphasis on the rebuilding of the Temple. The Temple—the focal point of all Jewish religion—had been destroyed during the period of Israel’s exile. Now that she was returning to her land, the Temple had to be rebuilt.
But again, why? What value could there be in a building of brick and mortar and stone? To understand this, we’ll have to look at the role of the Temple in the ancient world—and how this role is still alive today.
THE FIRST TEMPLE
Nearly every culture has some sort of “temple.” A temple is sort of a “cosmic crossroads”—where Heaven and earth are thought to intersect. Do you want to connect to God? Then you do so inside the temple.
In his detailed study of the Temple, G.K. Beale surveys all the literature from the ancient world—Jewish as well as pagan—and makes a fascinating discovery. Every ancient culture had their own version of a temple, and while shape and size varied, every ancient temple followed a similar three-tiered format. The outer courts were lavishly decorated with ornate artwork meant to evoke the flora and fauna of the created world. Going further, a darker, inner court—illuminated by lampstands—was meant to evoke the stars and the night sky. Finally, the innermost portion of the temple was where God was uniquely thought to dwell.
Though there was a bit more nuance, the Jewish Temple was no different. Eden was Israel’s original Temple: it was there that man connected with God in a garden and beneath an open sky. In Eden, man and God existed in perfect relationship. But man chose to be the master of his own destiny. And in doing so, he lost this perfect fellowship with God. God placed cherumbim (a type of angel) to block the way into Eden.
Because Eden was Israel’s original, perfect temple, the actual decorations of the Temple – from the carved gourds, palm trees, and flowers – were designed to replicate the contours of Eden (cf. 1 Kings 6:18; 7:14-35). But within the Temple was the place where God most specifically made His presence known. It was there that God’s glory took the form of a cloud (just as He had done as a guide to the Israelites) called the shekina glory (1 Kings 8:10-111). Only priests were allowed to enter this unique place within the Temple, and only to perform sacrifices. What barrier was chosen to separate this special area from the rest of the Temple? What final symbol could be chosen to symbolize the separation between man and God? A cherub – or rather the image of one, emblazoned on the heavy curtain that barred the way into God’s presence. Just as Eden had been sealed with the flaming sword of an angel, so too would this curtain remind Israel of their separation.
WHAT GOOD IS A TEMPLE?
Now I know what you’re thinking. All this sounds terribly archaic. Temple worship is the stuff of a primitive, pre-modern people. What good is a Temple? The rational worldview birthed from the enlightenment showed us that man’s problems could be solved not through divine intervention but through human empiricism. The individual flourished. In that kind of society, we don’t need a Temple. We don’t need sacrifice. What we need instead is a laboratory. What we need is a social welfare program.
But in the last century we have not seen the triumph of modernism – we have only watched its demise. Science, political theory and reason could not provide answers to the incredible suffering of the world around us – if anything there was an increase in human suffering in the last century. Human enterprise could not deliver the utopia it promised.
In a postmodern world, there are no real fixed points of reference – all truth claims are potentially attempts at seizing power. But in such a world, people are more open than ever before to spirituality, regardless of what form it might take. The collapse of modernism shattered “the hard surface of secularity” (to use Barth’s phrase), and gave us a glimpse – or at least a yearning – to seek out God. “How far is Heaven?” we find ourselves asking – a question that means more in today’s world than ever before.
THE TRUE TEMPLE
In Haggai’s day, the rebuilt Temple was compared to the one built by Solomon 500 years before.
In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3 ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? 4 Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, 5 according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. 6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. 9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.'” (Haggai 2:1-9)
God speaks of giving greater glory through this Temple—a glory that would surpass anything the elders could remember from before. This Temple would stand until the day of Jesus—a day when God would redraw the boundary between heaven and earth.
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. If the curtain symbolized the division between God and man, then Jesus’ death changed everything: now man could approach God freely. Jesus’ body becomes the true and better Temple. This is why Jesus tells His disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you (John 14:2).” In John 2, Jesus’ “Father’s house” was His body – what Jesus is saying is that His death means that there is a new Temple. Jesus’ body continues on in the form of His followers, the Church (1 Corinthians 12; cf. Ephesians 2:21). Just as God’s shekina glory once filled the Temple, so God’s Spirit indwell the individual human heart (1 Corinthians 6:19). Jesus’ death does not eliminate the priesthood – it eliminates the laity. We are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), meaning we can each freely enter into God’s presence knowing the Sacrifice has been made.
THE TEMPLE AND TODAY’S CHURCH
In a period of tension between Jew and Gentile, Paul reminds his readers of their new relationship to God and neighbor:
“… 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. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
The Church is the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is the true Temple. Do you see how this changes everything? We don’t go to church. We are the church. To believe in Jesus is to become part of a larger community of faith.
So…wait. If church isn’t a building, then why show up Sunday after Sunday? That’s a fair question. Church is far more than an hour-long service. Church is more than a collection of worship songs. Church is more than a sermon. But it’s not less. We don’t “go to church,” but the church gathers to celebrate the relationship that God has offered through Jesus—symbolized through such things as water baptism and the breaking of bread around the Lord’s Table. Do you understand how radical this is? Every major religion says: Go to this building, and God might bless you. The gospel says: God has already blessed you, so gather to say “thanks.” When we leave the doors of our church buildings week after week, the question that should hang in our minds is not: “Why did I bother going?” but “What would have happened to me if I hadn’t?” The gospel changes everything. The church gathers in gratitude for that change.