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In general, the word ‘temple’ refers to a physical sanctuary. But in the Bible, the idea behind a temple is neither beautiful architecture nor a gathering of people to worship God. Even before King Solomon built the impressive temple in Jerusalem, God commanded Moses to make a tabernacle, a mobile temple, so that God would dwell among the Israelites (Exo. 25:8). The tabernacle would symbolize God’s gracious presence with them. That’s why, God promises in Leviticus 26:12 that He would walk among them and be their God.
If the basic idea behind the temple was God’s dwelling among His people, the biblical narrative leads us back to the garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, we see the picture of God walking in the garden, but both Adam and Eve hiding from the presence of the Lord (Gen. 3:8).1 Because Adam and Eve sinned, they were afraid of the presence of the Lord and were consequently banished from God’s presence. Later, God made a covenant with the nation Israel and promised His presence with them. He established the temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial system and rituals to make atonement for their sins, so that they could experience God’s presence and blessings in their midst.
However, when God established the New Covenant through Jesus, the Old Covenant was made obsolete (Heb. 8:7, 13). This means that Jesus fulfilled elements of the Old Covenant, like the priesthood and the sacrificial system, by showing them to be ‘copies’ and ‘shadows’ of that which is true (Heb. 8:5; 9:24; 10:1). In the Old Covenant, a physical sanctuary was the temple of God. But in the New Covenant, God’s manifest presence is no longer in a building. God now dwells in Christ’s redeemed people, the church.
The Church is the Temple of God
When the Apostle John said, “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” (Jn. 1:14), he used the word ‘tabernacled’ for the word ‘dwelt.’ Other parts of the New Testament explain that in Christ, the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9), that He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and that He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb. 1:3). In other words, Jesus is the temple who came down from heaven and dwelt among us. Jesus told the Jews that he would raise the temple in three days if it was destroyed (Jn. 2:19) and John explains that he was referring to his body (vs. 21).
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was torn apart from top to bottom (Mk. 15:37-39), powerfully symbolizing that the old temple system had come to an end. Previously, the only way to enter into God’s presence was through the veil. But now, since there is no longer a veil, the only way to approach God is through Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead has established a new way of entrance into God’s presence, not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles.
The church is the new temple because of its union with Christ Jesus. In the building of this new temple, Christ himself is the ‘cornerstone’ on whom the foundation is laid by the inspired apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20).2 Each believer, as a living stone, is built together into something far more glorious, the “dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:22; 1 Pet. 2:4-5). Thus, the church is the temple of God because of God’s indwelling presence.
Implications of the Church Being the Temple of God
The knowledge that God dwells in individual believers (1 Cor. 6:19) and as well among the whole body of believers is a solemn thing. We are redeemed from sin and are set apart for God. We are to be devoted to Him alone.
The reality of God’s presence among his people is a call for the church to be holy unto God. The Apostle Paul said, “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16). Here Paul quotes from Leviticus 26:11,12. Even in the Old Covenant, God’s presence was promised to God’s covenant people for their obedience to God. Paul applies this promise to the New Covenant people, the church, the temple of God because God now dwells in and among his people.
As a result, Paul calls the church to purity, “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:17). G. K. Beale explains that in the Old Testament context, “Isaiah does not exhort Israelites, in general, to depart from Babylon, but especially priests who carry the holy ‘vessels’ of the temple. They are to return the ‘vessels’ to the temple when it is rebuilt (Isa. 52:11)”.3 Paul gives three imperatives, ‘go out,’ ‘be separate,’ and ‘do not touch’ to all believers in the New Covenant since we are all priests (1 Pet. 2:9). These imperatives call us to a life of separation from everything in contradiction to God’s will and His mind, and of consecration to God. Both individually and corporately, we are to do only things which bring honour to our God. We should not grieve the Spirit of God who indwells us (Eph. 4:30).
One of the reasons that too many Christians and churches feel distant from God is because we have allowed corruption into our lives. There’s pollution at a personal and corporate level. Too many Christians live carelessly during the week, affecting our communion with God. We use our minds and bodies for the things that would defile the temple of God. Our personal lives affect the corporate temple of God. The church is God’s temple, and every believer is sacred to God. Also, every activity in the church of God—from corporate worship to the teaching of God’s word, the way we handle God’s word, the way we relate with people, discipleship, attending to the needy, and the sick—everything is sacred in the sight of God. We need to carefully consider what we are doing and also how we are doing in our churches.
We ought to aim at all times to be pleasing unto God (2 Cor. 5:9). Paul calls us to a life of separation with two promises in 2 Corinthians 6. One is a promise of God’s presence in verse 16. God is not hindered by our sin when we do not grieve the Spirit of God, and we can experience God’s gracious blessing in and through the church. Second, is a promise of adoption in verse 18. Paul reminds us of the privileges that we have as God’s children. God is our Father by our union with Christ Jesus. Therefore, we must behave like the children of God in everything. Since we have these promises, Paul calls us to cleanse ourselves from all defilement, and progress in holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). We must not only avoid the wrong things which defile the temple of God, but also actively take steps towards our growth in holiness, which display the glory of the temple.
1 For more on this refer, God Dwells Among Us, Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth by G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim.
2 The Apostles and prophets are the foundation in the sense that the church is built on the revelation given to them regarding the work of Jesus Christ. Refer to Ephesians 3:4-5.
3 G.K. Beale, The Temple and the church's mission, A Biblical Theology of The Dwelling Place of God, pg. 176, New studies in Biblical Theology.