Recently my theological thoughts have been on the significance of the Temple in our overall understanding of the gospel. However, I have come to the conclusion that much of our thinking on the subject both starts and finishes in the wrong place — which is to say, in the middle of the biblical narrative.
By contrast with this, our understanding of the Temple should really begin in Genesis 1:28, where we read how, at the outset of the Bible, God blessed the human race and commissioned them to be fruitful and increase in number; to fill the earth and subdue it and to rule over all the animals.
This clearly implies the world was not yet all it could be. But God did not simply, as it were, dump the human race into an untamed world and tell them to get on with it. Instead, in Genesis 2:8 we read that “the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.”
The man is given a head start — he must subdue the world, but he is given a bit of the world that has been subdued already: a garden (Heb. gan), not the field (sadeh). And there the man not only enjoys “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (2:9), but has fellowship with God, who makes himself present there (compare 3:8).
In fact, the garden is a sanctuary, a holy place, from which mankind would spread out to fill the world, subdue it and rule over it. The garden is the starting point for human beings, made in God’s image, to have dominion over creation.
But then comes disobedience and Fall, and so at the end of Genesis 3 we read that humankind was driven from this sanctuary into the ‘wild’ world (Genesis 3:23-24), in a situation where not only will our engagement with the ground now be constant struggle, but the outcome will be inevitable death.
As if physical peril were not enough, however, humankind is driven not only from the garden, but from God’s presence — something which is brought out even more by the complaint of Cain in Genesis 4 when he faces judgement for murdering his brother. Cain says to God (4:13-14),
My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence ...
And that ‘being driven from God’s presence’ is maintained throughout the Old Testament. For however much God does for his people, they are never able to re-enter his presence.
This is true, moreover, not only when Israel sins, but in the most ideal of situations. In Exodus 25, we read the beginnings of the construction of the Tabernacle, and in v 8 we are told its purpose:
... have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them (lit. “I will dwell in their midst”).
Yet when the Tabernacle is completed in Exodus 40, we read this (vv 34-35):
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lordfilled the tabernacle.
When God enters in glory, man — even the man with whom God talked “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex 33:11) — must leave.
Again, in 1 Kings 8:10-11, after the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the inner Sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple, we read this,
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.
When God enters his sanctuary, even the priests of God must leave! And in fact only the High Priest could enter the Sanctuary, and then only on the Day of Atonement, and then only after sacrifices for his own sin, having offered sacrifices for the sins of the people.
Jesus said clearly, however, that one day (quite soon) the Son of Man, would appear “in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). This is not, however, a reference to his ‘Second Coming’, but to his entering the Temple-presence of God. In Daniel 7:13 we read this,
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
The Son of Man in Daniel comes into the real Temple — the place where God is present — with the clouds of glory. And at his trial Jesus described this as if it were imminent:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:61-62)
We have argued elsewhere that this was fulfilled by his death, resurrection and ascension which confronted his opponents through the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.
However, we will miss some of the significance of this if we forget the function of the Temple within the flow of salvation history.
One of our problems is that ‘temple’ is habitually used to translate two words in the Old Testament which bear different senses from the English word. These are ‘house’ and ‘palace’: the structure built so that God could dwell ‘in the midst’ of his people was, not unnaturally, his home and was also conceived as the place from which he exerted his rule.
Thus in Isaiah 2, the eschatological hope is that,
In the last days the mountain of the House of the Lord (NIV, Lord’s temple) will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Notice, the point of going up to the House of the Lord is to come under the rule of the Lord, which goes out from there to the whole world. In this way, the Temple is a new ‘Garden of Eden’ — not just a sanctuary within the world, but the starting point for a dominion which will extend over the world.
But who can dwell in God’s tabernacle (Psalm 15:1, cf Ex 40:35) or live on his holy hill? The answer is phrased in moral terms: “He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous” (v 2), which means, for example, the one who “does his neighbour no wrong”, or “keeps his oath, even when it hurts” or “does not accept a bribe against the innocent” (vv 3-5).
Entering the sanctuary, then, requires precisely what is achieved through the crucifixion:
... we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body ... (Heb 10:19-20)
Through the crucifixion we are enabled to do what would only be allowed for one who completely ‘works righteousness’ (Heb tsedeq). And as Psalm 15 has shown (contra N T Wright, I think), this means fulfilling a moral imperative (not simply being declared a member of a community).
We are thus right to think of Christ’s death as enabling us to be accounted righteous (ie morally upright), and therefore to enjoy what was lost at Eden, namely unbroken fellowship with God, within his ‘House’. However, we do not enter the Lord’s House simply to remain there, for God’s House is also his Palace.
Thus, Christ’s death for sin brings us into God’s presence so that we may participate in extending his dominion to the whole world. The Temple is not our resting place, but our starting point.
Christian theology has rightly identified the assembled community of the church as the outward, visible, manifestation of this Temple. But we see from all this that being made a part of this Temple is not theconclusion of the Great Commission. Rather, it is the beginning of the extension of Christ’s rule, which must necessarily extend over every area of life in which we find ourselves involved.
It is in this way that the two aspects of the gospel which are so often separated can, and must, be held together. 'Salvation from sin' and 'social action' are, as traditional Christian theology has maintained, inseparable. But so often we have separated them. Sometimes drawing people ‘into’ the Temple is seen as the only proper focus of mission. Equally, bringing about the ‘kingdom’ in the world is seen by others as the true ‘priority’.
But if we understand the Temple properly, we see that God’s rule cannot be extended where sin is not dealt with, whilst being saved from sin is not an alternative to engagement with the world, but the beginning of making all things subject to Christ.
To preach the gospel is to build the Temple (1 Corinthians 3:10-18). But to build the Temple is to extend God’s kingdom into the world through those made in his image, not to snatch people out of it.