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Jesus, the Temple, and the Church
By Anthony D. Palma
God intended the temple and its precursor, the tabernacle, to be understood typologically. Their fulfillment, as with so many other Old Testament types, took place with the coming of the Messiah and the inauguration of the new covenant. Hence this study looks into the New Testament concept of the temple and its roots in the Old Testament.
Two Greek words (hieron and naos) are often translated “temple” in the New Testament, but it is important to see the distinction between the two. The first usually refers to the entire temple complex, which included not only the temple building but also the various courts around the building. The second refers to the building itself, and could more properly be translated “sanctuary.” Thus naos is the focus here and is used in all the New Testament passages cited or quoted.
Old Testament Background
In Old Testament times, a temple was considered to be the dwelling place of a deity. Consequently we see that the temple and the tabernacle represented the Lord’s special dwelling place. He who was and is everywhere chose to localize His presence in the Holy of Holies — particularly over the ark of the covenant and between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22, 30:6,36).
Note also that at the dedication of both the tabernacle and the temple the phenomenon of the cloud, representing God’s glory and presence, settled over the buildings (Exodus 40:34,35; 2 Chronicles 7:1–3).
Jesus as the Temple
Jesus, in foretelling the Resurrection, said to His opponents, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:191). His comment is especially significant since it was made at the time He cleansed the temple. John’s editorial comment: “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (verse 21). Here is a hint that the temple was being superseded by its fulfillment, for Jesus on earth was the special manifestation of God’s presence in the world (John 1:18; 14:8,9). The tabernacle and the temple looked forward to this.
A further indication is in the statement that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt (skenoo) among us” (John 1:14). This Greek verb is not the usual one for “dwell.” It is the verbal form of the word for tent (skene) and may properly be translated “tabernacled’‘ — reminiscent of the Old Testament tent of meeting and in accord with the thrust of this article.
Paul and the Temple
Paul, addressing the Athenians, said that “the God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24,25). Stephen echoed a similar thought as he chastised his persecutors for placing their faith in the temple rather than in what the temple symbolized (Acts 7:46–50).
Jesus’ death meant that the typology of the Old Testament temple and tabernacle was to be fulfilled in still another way. In three different ways Paul portrayed the Church as the antitype or fulfillment of the Old Testament temple, using the word naos in all instances.
The individual Christian is called such a temple. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). The context shows this to be a call to personal holiness as Paul dealt with the problem of sexual immorality among Christians.
He also applied the imagery of naos collectively to a local congregation. “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16,17). These words were addressed to a congregation, not to individuals. The pronoun you in Greek is plural, yet the word temple is singular. The context shows that Paul was speaking about a local situation at Corinth where factions existed within the congregation that might destroy it.
Paul further applied the imagery of the temple to the universal Church. In Ephesians 2 he talked about Jews and Gentiles being united in Christ, “in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (verses 21,22). In 2 Corinthians 6 he said, “We [plural] are the temple [singular] of the living God.” He proceeded to quote Leviticus 26:12, “I will dwell in them and walk among them” (verses 16,17). God’s dwelling in, or within, the Church is certainly the counterpart of His dwelling in the Holy of Holies. The context further is a call for the Church to separate itself from all that is unclean.
All these Pauline passages emphasize that the individual Christian, the local congregation, and the universal Church are the special dwelling place of God — not just His hieron but His naos. The call is for Christians individually and collectively to be the bearers of God’s presence to the world. It is especially significant that these passages stress the Holy Spirit, who mediates God’s presence to us and helps us live so as to manifest that presence to others.
The Temple and John
In addition to the passages from John’s Gospel mentioned earlier, the Book of Revelation speaks of the tabernacle and the temple in an eschatological context as being in heaven (3:12; 7:15; 11:19; 12:12; 15:5). As the climax to the panbiblical view of the temple and tabernacle, John said when the holy city, New Jerusalem, comes down from heaven: “I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them’ ” (21:3). The capstone of the entire study is found in the words: “And I saw no temple in it [the New Jerusalem], for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:22,23).
Anthony D. Palma, Th.D., is a longtime Assemblies of God educator, Springfield, Missouri.
1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).